Jeff Morales is about to trade in 289 miles of train tracks for 15,000 miles of California highway.
Plucked by Gov. Gray Davis from a top post at the Chicago Transit Authority, where he spent two years helping to manage that city's system of elevated trains, buses and subways, Morales is set to become the next director of California's troubled Department of Transportation.
As the new Caltrans chief, Morales, 40, will draw on his mass transit experience as he faces a myriad of daunting challenges, not the least of which is figuring out ways to coax more Californians out of their cars.
His appointment comes just weeks after Davis unveiled a $15-billion transportation spending plan, which won both praise and criticism for its proposed shifting of funds away from highways and roads in favor of trains and buses.
"He's kind of entering a lion's den," said Richard Silver, of the Train Riders Assn. of California. "It's going to be difficult because the highway lobby's philosophy is so entrenched in Caltrans."
Added Richard Katz, a former chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee: "It'll be a cultural change for a group that's used to solving problems by pouring concrete."
Nevertheless, Katz believes Morales' arrival will be met with a sigh of relief at the agency.
"They've been under attack," Katz said. "They had a director who may have been well-intentioned but who didn't have a strong enough background to be a strong advocate."
The son of a Mexican immigrant, Morales is replacing Jose Medina, who was ousted by Davis from Caltrans' top slot earlier this month after a series of embarrassing snafus. Morales' appointment saves Davis from potential criticism for sacking one of the few high-ranking Latino officials in his administration.
Those who know Morales say his transportation experience--handling federal legislation, formulating policy for the Clinton administration and running a local transit operation--makes him a natural fit for the state's highest transportation post.
Morales was praised by Vice President Al Gore, a previous boss, for playing a key role in the administration's efforts to "reinvent the federal government."
His fans are quick to cite his work on Chicago's transit system. They credit him with helping to reverse a 40% slide in ridership and securing funds to begin addressing the system's billions of dollars in capital needs.
"Trying to change a big organization is a tough thing to do," said Mortimer L. Downey, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, who worked with Morales in Washington. "Jeff's had some success in Chicago doing that and he's not afraid to take some risks."
His Father Treated Reagan After Shooting
Morales grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, where his anesthesiologist father, George Morales, eventually settled after emigrating in 1951 from Mexico, where he had attended medical school at the National University of Mexico. The elder Morales was part of the trauma unit that treated President Ronald Reagan after the 1981 attempt on his life.
It was somewhat surprising that Jeff Morales, schooled in biology at George Washington University, would end up as a transportation wonk. He began his bureaucratic career in 1983, handling environmental policy for U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey).
When Lautenberg became chairman of the Senate's transit appropriations subcommittee, Morales adapted by immersing himself in transportation issues. He became a principal drafter of the landmark Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, which ushered in a massive reorganization of federal aid programs for transportation.
Morales left Lautenberg's office in 1993 to become a special assistant to then-Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena, later serving as a policy advisor to Pena.
His next stop was Gore's National Performance Review task force to streamline the federal government, which he joined in 1995. Morales also served as issues director for the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security.
He was lured to Chicago in 1998 by Frank Kruesi after Kruesi was appointed president of the Chicago Transit Authority.
The men's paths had crossed previously at the Transportation Department, where they had worked closely together on reforming the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control system.
"I was struck by his quick grasp of complex issues and his remarkable clarity," Kruesi said of Morales. "What you don't get out of Jeff is mush."
As the CTA's executive vice president of management and performance, Morales oversaw the agency's $1.2-billion budget and was responsible for implementing a program to make the city's system of buses and trains more rider-friendly, among other duties. The nation's second largest public transportation system, the CTA serves about 1.5 million riders each weekday.
Morales' work at the Chicago agency has garnered mixed reviews from grass-roots groups that have historically been critical of the agency.
"Jeff is a smart and very focused guy," said Jacky Grimshaw, of the Center for Neighborhood Technology. "He has a background and framework that he called upon as we were trying to debate and solve transit issues here."
Jacqueline Leavy of the Chicago-based Neighborhood Capitol Budget Group, however, described Morales as a bureaucrat who followed the party line.
"Jeff was a quiet, behind-the-scenes player," Leavy said. "He was not very visible at all, so whatever expertise he brought with him never trickled out to the neighborhoods that I could tell."
Morales' Plans for Caltrans Unknown
Little is known of Morales' plans for Caltrans, where he will oversee a budget of more than $7.5 billion and 22,000 employees. He has shied away from requests for interviews, saying through his spokeswoman only that he is eager to carry out Davis' plan to improve transportation.
"If I had to bet a nickel, I would say Jeff is going to apply what he learned from the federal reinvention process to Caltrans," said Phil Recht, a Los Angeles attorney who worked with Morales at the Transportation Department.
Recht said that could result in Morales' taking a hard look at each of the services that Caltrans provides to see whether they are being performed efficiently. New emphasis is likely to be placed on customer service.
"I think you're going to see Jeff focus very heavily on Caltrans customers," said Morley Winograd, director of Gore's reinventing government project.
Davis also will expect Morales, who is scheduled to join Caltrans in early June, to promote his plan to place a $2.2-billion transit bond measure on the November ballot and to persuade legislators to spend an additional $3 billion from the state's budget to help solve California's transportation problems.
But for Davis' plan to work, federal and local officials will have to cough up another $10 billion. Morales' knowledge of the federal transportation system and his access to key Washington politicians could pave the way for federal money to make its way to California, observers said.
"There are hundreds and hundreds of funding niches in the federal government [and] if you know how to access them it could be very helpful to the state in terms of maximizing and leveraging federal dollars," Katz said.
And rebuilding Caltrans' image probably would score brownie points with Davis.
"Caltrans can be a very effective agency or it can be [a] bureaucratic morass," said MTA board member and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "I think what the governor is seeking to do is ratchet up the performance of the agency so that it's consistently strong. . . . That's the challenge Mr. Morales will have."