Career in Transportation Leads Christine Kefauver to Brightline
Christine Kefauver saw snow outside her bedroom window one morning in Naestved, about an hour’s train ride from Copenhagen. She was spending her high school senior year in Denmark as an exchange student, and she knew just what to do. She pulled the down comforter up under her chin and planned to stay in for a “snow day.” Her host mother laughed and said, “You’d never go to school here if you did that.”
It was quite a change from what she was used to back home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. “The community I was living in was celebrating its 850-year jubilee,” Kefauver said. “I saw how everyone biked, no matter what the weather was. I saw how public policy impacted urban form, how there tended to be one vehicle per household. Between walking, cycling and commuting by train, the lifestyle in Denmark lent itself to a higher level of personal fitness. There was not this passive riding everywhere. The transit systems worked.”
That pivotal year ignited in her a passion for transportation, and she has since dedicated her career to everything from roads and bridges to bus routes to commuter train tracks to light rail lines. Much of that work has been in Central Florida, where she helped plan the SunRail commuter train system.
Today, as the new senior vice president of corporate development for Brightline, she is the Central Florida face of a company that plans to bring high-speed rail from Miami to Orlando in 2022 and eventually expand to Tampa.
“It’s all part of a larger ecosystem,” she said. “Brightline is not going to solve everyone’s problems, but it becomes the spine that you can begin to grow regional and local systems from, working in partnership and collaboration. I think the reason I was chosen for this role is because I understand this community so well.”
Early in her career, with a degree in urban planning from the University of Maryland — a course of study that was uncommon then — Kefauver was working for a transportation planning firm when President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991. The act declared that U.S. policy would be to develop a national intermodal transportation system that would move people and goods in an energy-efficient manner.
By her mid-20s, Kefauver was working for the Federal Highway Administration, visiting cities nationwide to teach people how to use U.S. Census data for travel demand forecasting and modeling. One day, in West Virginia, a man said to her, “Sugar, who are you to tell me how I’m supposed to use my state dollars for transportation? I’ve been an engineer longer than you’ve been alive.”
The comment only made her more resolute. She realized she could make a bigger impact by getting involved in transportation on a local level. She found her way to Orlando, where Linda Chapin was serving as the first woman chair of Orange County. Chapin hired Kefauver as part of an in-house transportation team, and one of her first assignments was working with a constituent named Teresa Jacobs who was concerned about the construction of Apopka-Vineland Road. Years later, Jacobs herself would become Orange County mayor.
“When I started in Orange County, there were still hundreds of miles of dirt roads here,” Kefauver said. “The county deals with urban, suburban and rural issues. It’s very complex. In contrast, the city of Orlando focuses on urban issues, which has its own challenges, like higher demand and sometimes aging infrastructure. There’s also the complexity of city–owned versus county-owned and state-owned. You and I as drivers don’t care. We just want a seamless transportation network.”
After almost 10 years, a family move took her to Bentonville, Arkansas, where she worked for the Northwest Arkansas Council, addressing transportation and other issues alongside business leaders who included Sam Walton of Walmart, J.B. Hunt from J.B. Hunt Transport Services and Don Tyson from Tyson Foods.
“They wanted to ensure they were addressing a collective and cohesive quality of life because they wanted to attract the best talent the world could offer,” Kefauver said. “It was hard to attract talent to Northwest Arkansas, so they wanted to make sure they broke down all the barriers.”
When her family returned to Orlando, Mayor Buddy Dyer approached Kefauver and asked her to work as his transportation policy advisor. She stayed there almost seven years, seeing the SunRail project through from legislative approval to planning to construction in partnership with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT).
“It was a great honor to work shoulder to shoulder with him on all things transportation, but particularly SunRail,” she said. “Mayor Dyer never gave up on SunRail, not even through three sessions when it was proposed in the Legislature, because he knew it was the right thing to do. Mayor Dyer taught me the greatest lessons about collaboration and partnership, about agreeing on a whole lot more than we don’t agree on.
“There was a level of perseverance that not many people would have sustained. And it just reinforced to me that if it were easy, it would be done by now, and that’s what drives my patience with next steps for Brightline.”
She also credits former Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce President Jacob Stuart with showing her how to take a regional view of infrastructure including transportation. Under his decades of leadership, the chamber became part of what is today the Orlando Economic Partnership, which encompasses a seven-county region that includes Brevard, Lake, Orange, Osceola, Polk, Seminole and Volusia as well as the City of Orlando.
Kefauver counts SunRail as one of her career’s crowning achievements. Her two daughters still joke that the project was mentioned so often at her house, it became like a third child in their family.
One day, as SunRail was about to open, a friend told Kefauver her name was being mentioned for a job at HDR Engineering. She went to work for the firm, and it won a contract to design the Interstate 4 Ultimate Project. Within a year, her boss was promoted to a position in the Northeast and urged her to apply for his job.
“I said, ‘Me? I’m still learning where the bathroom is,’” she joked. Kefauver was promoted to run all operations for Florida, Alabama and Mississippi — not just transportation but also water, wastewater, power generation, construction and other functions.
She was invited to a summit at the firm’s headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, where she delivered an important message onstage that still sticks with her about leading such a large group of employees: “I said, ‘You know, we’re planners, we’re engineers, we’re architects, but we are in the people business. We need to do whatever we can to create an environment where people want to thrive. So we need to know what their motivators are.
“I believe that in almost any line of work, people innately want to do good things. If their passion aligns with what they like to do and what they get to do, it’s phenomenal what can happen.”
Eventually, however, she realized that no matter how much she loved the job, the role had taken her away from the transportation work that fed her passion and joy.
When she was offered a position with Brightline earlier this year, Kefauver picked up the phone. “I called my daughter, who was in the fourth grade when we started the SunRail conversation and is finishing her senior year of college now. I said, ‘Honey, I’m thinking about taking this role with Brightline.’ She said, ‘If you can do for Brightline what you did for SunRail, that legacy will be so amazing. It’s like SunRail on steroids.’”
Her daughter’s enthusiasm spurred her to make the move, and Kefauver joined Brightline in March.
“It’s exciting,” she said. “That’s what we do all of this for, because we care about what the future brings, whether it’s climate change, sustainability, resiliency, all of these things. Yes, we do it for progress, but it’s ultimately for that next generation and caring about what that will look like.”