Latinos Leading the Way in Transportation History

September 15th marks the beginning of National Hispanic American Heritage Month, and here at USDOT, we’re thrilled to recognize the contributions Hispanics/Latinos have made and continue to make to the department and the nation at-large.

Here’s some of the leaders and accomplishments you should know:

Nuria Fernandez — Federal Transit Administration, Administrator

On June 10, 2021, Nuria Fernandez became the first Senate-confirmed woman of color, and first Afro-Latina to lead the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Her appointment marked the latest step in a long and distinguished history of public service as a leader in public transit. Fernandez had her first stint in the FTA in 1997 as Acting Administrator. Under the Clinton Administration, she oversaw a $1 billion grant program for the planning, design, and construction of new and expanding rail and bus systems, among other initiatives.

Over her 35-year career, Fernandez also oversaw some of the busiest transit agencies across the country. In addition to her work for the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Chicago Department of Aviation, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), Fernandez most recently served as the General Manager and CEO of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA). Under her tenure, the VTA completed the first Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) heavy rail service into Silicon Valley, which opened for passenger service in June 2020. Fernandez obtained federal approval for the expansion of the rail service, and after its completion in 2026, it will provide transit options to tens of thousands of commuters in and around Silicon Valley.

Federico Peña — Former Secretary of Transportation

Beginning his career as a civil rights lawyer, Federico Peña represented Latino teachers and students in the first tri-ethnic desegregation lawsuit in the U.S. and drafted laws promoting bilingual and multicultural education. As mayor of Denver, Peña demonstrated his commitment to public works and transportation issues. In fact, the freeway of the Denver International Airport is named in his honor for his efforts to build the airport.

Federico Peña Boulevard

Peña’s experience made him a prime pick for President Clinton’s Secretary of Transportation in 1993, a role through which Peña continued to innovate and expand American transportation. A particularly exciting achievement of his tenure: opening up global aviation markets and allowing American airlines to fly anywhere around the world!

Elwood “Pete” Quesada — Federal Aviation Administration, First Administrator

In 1967. Elwood “Pete” Quesada, a retired Air Force general and World War II veteran, was appointed as the first administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958. Quesada quickly established the organizational structure of the FAA before focusing his efforts on aviation safety. He updated decades-old safety standards and adopted brand new technologies like UNIVAC file computers, used at air traffic control centers, and the ASDE radar system, which greatly improved air traffic controllers’ ability to spot aircraft and vehicles on the ground. By the time Quesada left the agency he helped create in 1961, the FAA was already operating and maintaining 9,500 air navigation and traffic control facilities, which safeguarded 60 million airline passengers a year.

Victor Mendez — Administrator, Federal Highway Administrator

Victor Mendez served as Federal Highway Administrator from 2009 to 2014 and launched initiatives that created tens of thousands of jobs while improving quality of life and safety for numerous communities. As a former transportation engineer and director for the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) as well as president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), Mendez had decades of experience spearheading transportation innovations and technology.

He began his tenure under the Obama Administration by implementing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), which made $26.6 billion available for over 13,000 bridge and highway projects across the country. He also started the Every Day Counts (EDC) initiative and defined three key areas of focus, including Shortening Project Delivery, Accelerating Technology and Innovation Deployment, and the Going Greener initiative. Today, the EDC continues to help states streamline construction projects and make them more cost effective.


In addition to playing key leadership roles at USDOT, Latinos are a crucial part of the transportation leadership and workforce nationwide. Hispanics make up the 2nd largest proportion of transportation workers. Their contributions have made American transportation possible, which is why we’re ensuring workers can access good-paying jobs that help build the safe, modern, and equitable infrastructure America needs.



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