By Joshua Gray
As the newly appointed chief engineer for the D.C. Department of Transportation, Kathleen Penney has risen to the ranks of those who need insulation from the press. A public-relations minder hovers on the sidelines throughout our exchange, held in the blandly efficient Reeves Municipal Center on U Street NW.
In spite of the public-relations veil, Penney is largely unaffected, casual and candid — as much a long-time Hill resident and parent of two school-age children as an upper-echelon government functionary.
From her new post, Penney is well positioned to preside over major projects that could spell real change to D.C.’s roads. She cited the planned renovation of the 11th Street bridges — a key element in the District’s Near Southeast waterfront development scheme — as the front-and-center issue confronting her office. But these dry facts of city planning could be part of anyone’s curriculum vitae. It’s Penney’s back story that sets her apart.
Kathleen and Tim Penney arrived in the District in 1998 by way of California, Colorado and other points west. As employees of the Federal Highway Administration, they’d moved often, and Kathleen, a Vermont native, was glad to get back to theEast Coast.They bought a house on the Hill and then another in near Southeast when they outgrew the first. They had two kids and put them in local schools. And they became part of a neighborhood in a way that they never had before.
“The thing that’s different about the Hill, more than any place else we’ve ever lived, is the people,” says Penney. “They’re really interested in the community. The Hill has people that are committed to maybe a bigger calling.”
As a parent on the Hill, Penney touches a lot of the usual school-age bases — she’s a soccer mom and hovers on the sidelines of girls basketball. Though she hasn’t been a serious runner in years, she and her kids still do the 3K in The Capitol Hill Classic every year. And cyclists have reason to be optimistic about D.C.’s transportation plans — Penney bikes to work every day, year-round, rain or shine.
“It’s the only way to get around the Hill,” she laughs.
Serving as Transportation Department’s deputy chief engineer since 2004, Penney participated in a number of pivotal projects. Her grace under pressure was tested close to home when fire devastated Eastern Market last April. Penney’s efforts were key in the construction of the temporary hall and other facilities for long-established merchants and vendors.
“There was so much work to be done so quickly, the city administrator and the mayor wanted … to get going full speed,” she said.
Also close to home is the 11th Street Bridge project, and Penney’s excitement about it is obvious.
“I’m a civil engineer by training,” she says. “My interest from the beginning was in bridges. I really came to DDOT to pursue my dream of doing major bridges. It’s been a tremendous challenge. It’s also been just a blast.”
In this unguarded declaration, Penney gives assurance that the Transportation Department’s engineering reins are in good hands. A disinterested policy wonk could never talk about “a dream of doing major bridges.”
Only a real, live, transportation-obsessed engineering geek could say that in all seriousness.