Transportation veteran suits up

Janet Kavinoky possesses a key asset for anyone in a high-pressure job: a sense of humor. How many top-level transportation experts have you heard of who have publicly worn a gorilla suit?

Earlier this year, Kavinoky, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s director of transportation infrastructure, predicted that Congress would not pass a road and transit funding bill in an election year.

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“I said in a speech that if we get a surface [transportation] bill done by June, I would wear a gorilla suit,” she recalled with a laugh during an interview with The Hill. 

Surprising not only Kavinoky, Congress passed such a bill.

“I own a gorilla suit [now] and I did wear it. $55 on Amazon. In testament to transportation, I got it with prime shipping.

“It’s a generic-size suit,” Kavinoky added. “On me, it’s a little tall and a little wide.

During the time Kavinoky has worked in the transportation sector, starting with the Department of Transportation in 1995, the name of the bill Congress passes to provide road and transit funding has gone from ISTEA to TEA-21 to SAFETEA-LU to MAP-21.

MAP-21, or the $105 billion Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century bill, was passed this June.

Many transportation authorizations before she donned the primate costume, Kavinoky started her career in Washington at the DOT during the Clinton administration. At that time the transportation bill was known as ISTEA, or Ice-Tea — the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act.

“I’m glad we’re moving away from all the TEAs,” she quipped, regarding the legislation’s shifting acronyms.

She worked under former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater for four years before moving to California to pursue a graduate degree in business at Stanford University.

Upon returning to Washington with an MBA, she went to work at the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) before landing at the Chamber of Commerce in 2006.

Kavinoky said the organization is an ideal place for her to use her skills productively. 

Her work at the Chamber, involving the constant interface of government and business, provides a perfect merger “of where I started as a 21-year-old with a poli-sci degree and what I learned at Stanford,” she said.

“You learn to translate between public and private sectors and hopefully get a transportation system that works for the sign out front,” she said, referring to the large JOBS sign that graces the Chamber’s H Street entrance and faces the nearby White House.

Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President for Government Affairs Bruce Josten said the organization is as glad to have Kavinoky as she is to work there.

“Janet’s years of experience and profound knowledge on the wide-ranging and intricate issues pertaining to transportation make her an invaluable asset to the Chamber and its members,” Josten told The Hill. “Her work touches every American in some way — from infrastructure development on bridges and highways to safety in air travel and water supply. The Chamber is proud to have Janet on our team.”

Although she wore her gorilla suit in good-natured celebration of Congress defying her MAP-21 prediction, Kavinoky said she usually does not offer prognostications on what lawmakers will do on legislation she is pushing for or against.

“I never say definitively that they are definitely going to get a bill done,” she said. “It’s always ‘we’re confident’ or ‘we think we can get a bill done.’ I always think something can go wrong. That keeps me focused on the just-in-case.”

Even when Kavinoky does not believe Congress can compromise on a bill, she keeps a brave face in public. 

“There are certain things you don’t say out loud,” she said. “You never say, ‘There’s no way they’re going to get a bill done.’ Your job as an advocate is to believe they can. It’s about creating a path others can believe, too.”

Kavinoky admits she sometimes gets discouraged about the squabbles in Congress that have increasingly marked transportation funding efforts.

“My default threat is that I’m going to become a park ranger,” she said. “I love parks and being outdoors. I’m not sure I have transferable skills, though.”

Luckily for her, the Chamber and its members, Kavinoky is not quite ready to give up the transportation funding fight.

“I could see myself doing three or four more if they go back to six-year authorizations,” she said. “I see myself being in transportation a long time, unless somebody can figure out something else I can do.”