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2021 WTS Annual Conference Features California and National Transportation Leaders

By: Avital Barnea, Deputy Secretary for Transportation Planning at CalSTA

Each May, WTS members from across the United States and Canada gather to participate in educational programs and celebrate the organization’s achievements at the Annual Conference. The Central Virginia WTS Chapter was host of the 2021 Annual Conference, which was to take place in Richmond, VA, but due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, was instead held virtually from May 10th-14th.

The theme of this year’s conference was “Activate + Elevate” and sessions reflected the lessons learned and future trends that are impacting the transportation industry, including equity, innovation, and workforce. California was well represented at the virtual conference, with 15 individuals from public agencies and private companies throughout the state speaking on panel sessions that covered all aspects of the conference theme (the full conference agenda is available here). Included among the contingency of California speakers were Executive Director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission Therese McMillan, CEO of the California High Speed Rail Authority Brian Kelly, former Caltrans Director Laurie Berman, and CEO of Metrolink Stephanie Wiggins, who was recently appointed to be LA Metro’s next CEO and the first woman to lead this agency. In addition, Jeanet Owens, Senior Executive Officer, Program Management and Regional Rail at LA Metro, received WTS International’s top award – Woman of the Year. University of Southern California student Joan Jeeun Lee was also honored at the conference by receiving the WTS International Sharon D. Banks Memorial Undergraduate Scholarship. And lastly, the Sacramento and Orange County WTS chapters both received Gold designation in the Chapter Circle of Excellence awards.

This year’s conference keynote speaker was Carla Harris, Vice-Chairman, Managing Director & Senior Client Advisor at Morgan Stanley, and author of Expect to Win: 10 Proven Strategies for Thriving in the Workplace and Strategize to Win: The New Way to Start Out, Step Up, or Start Over in Your Career. Ms. Harris spoke about her “pearls of wisdom” – advice on how to succeed in your career – including showing authenticity and transparency, and understanding the value of performance currency and relationship currency.

One of the most anticipated conference sessions this year was a plenary panel featuring newly appointed leaders at the US Department of Transportation. This session was moderated by WTS International Board Chair and former Secretary of the Washington State DOT Paula Hammond, and featured USDOT Under Secretary Polly Trottenberg, Acting FHWA Administrator Stephanie Pollack, Acting FMCSA Administrator Meera Joshi, and FAA Deputy Administrator Bradley Mims. The panelists spoke about their policy priorities and what excites them about their work, including focusing on climate change, equity, and safety. Acting FTA Administrator (and former General Manager/CEO of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority) Nuria Fernandez was also slated to speak on the panel, but had to decline when her US Senate confirmation hearing was scheduled on the same day.

As the conference hosts, the WTS Central Virginia Chapter held a virtual welcome reception featuring remarks from Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, and US Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. To help bridge the gap between a normal in-person conference and this year’s virtual conference, attendees received a physical conference program as well as conference handouts in the mail that arrived in a WTS-branded box. Furthermore, the welcome reception featured a virtual photo booth and four virtual breakout sessions as a fun way to end the day. Breakout session options included a live dueling pianos concert, a build your own charcuterie board course, women in wine (featuring female winemakers), and a live trivia game.

At the end of the week, it was announced that the next Annual Conference will be hosted by the WTS Puget Sound Chapter. As the severity of the pandemic continues to decline, WTS International is planning to return to an in-person conference and looks forward to seeing attendees in Seattle, WA from May 18th-20th, 2022.

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