Long before John Porcari became second-in-command of the nation’s roads, airspace, waterways, railways and mass-transit systems, he said his character was shaped in the kitchen and cabins of Camp Stella Maris and the halls of Aquinas Institute in the Diocese of Rochester.
Porcari, 50, who on June 1 became deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, worked for 13 summers as a counselor, training director and food-preparation worker among other roles at Camp Stella Maris, a Catholic camp in Livonia, Livingston County. The Rochester native also attended the former St. Margaret Mary School in Irondequoit and graduated from Aquinas, a Rochester Catholic high school that is affiliated with the diocese.
"I think (the camp and schools) were very formative experiences that left a lasting impression on me," Porcari told the Catholic Courier in a phone interview. "Among other things, they blessed me with lifelong friends."
While he was a seminarian Father Daniel Condon, diocesan chancellor, worked at the camp and met Porcari there and got to know him. The priest remembered Porcari as being straightforward and honest.
"He was a wonderful guy with a great sense of humor," Father Condon recalled.
At camp, Porcari said he learned a lot about life, spiritual growth and how to treat his fellow human beings. Another lesson from his camp days was the value of giving back.
"To whom much is given, much will be expected," he said, quoting Luke 12:48.
That also was a lesson taught by his many family members who were public servants: His great-grandfather was curator of the Seneca Park Zoo, his grandfather headed Monroe County’s veteran’s services agency, his father was leader of the Rochester Housing Authority and his mother was a nurse. He said some of his earliest memories are of attending public housing, zoning and other neighborhood meetings in church basements.
In addition to his family, such mentors as Basilian Father Donald McCarthy, his cross-country coach and religion teacher at Aquinas, played an important role in his upbringing.
"He was a real leader, and someone who really showed how we can all strive to do better, and that we have an obligation to do so," Porcari said.
After graduating from Aquinas in 1977, Porcari — who now lives in Cheverly, Md., with his wife Heidi and their five children — received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Dayton, Ohio, and a master’s degree in public administration from the State University of New York College at Albany.
In the mid-1980s, Porcari moved to Maryland to work in environmental planning and development positions for Prince George’s County. He then served as assistant secretary for economic development policy at the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development and worked as vice president of a civil-engineering and land-use consulting firm.
At Maryland’s Department of Transportation, Porcari served as deputy secretary and then twice served as secretary of transportation, where he oversaw Maryland’s highways, transit, aviation, maritime commerce, passenger and freight rail, toll authority, and motor-vehicle administration. In between his two terms as Maryland’s transportation secretary, he served as vice president for administrative affairs at the University of Maryland, College Park.
According to the The Washington Post, President Barack Obama’s administration brought Porcari to the DOT to beef up the transportation experience of the top ranks of the transportation department, which is headed by former Illinois Congressman Raymond LaHood. Porcari is charged with managing the agency’s day-to-day operations.
"To be able to give back in a small way is a real honor, and it’s a real particular honor to be working for President Obama and Secretary LaHood, both of whom are very dedicated to public service," Porcari said.
One of the department’s primary goals is to ensure the safety of American people on the move, he said. Transportation department research has led to antilock brakes, airbags and other innovations becoming commonplace on vehicles, Porcari noted.
"Safety is job 1 for all of us," he remarked.
Job 2, then, may be the construction of new infrastructure. Since beginning his new job, Porcari has traveled the country to talk about how the DOT believes its $48 billion share of federal economic stimulus money will literally help get America moving again.
Eight billion dollars of the stimulus money has been set aside for high-speed rail projects, including a New York line that would connect New York City, Albany and Buffalo and that could allow passenger trains to travel up to 125 miles per hour.
While noting that Obama and LaHood are very committed to high-speed rail projects, Porcari said that in general, it takes decades to build such projects, just as it took decades to build the nation’s interstate and aviation systems.
"(High-speed rail) could be one of the best transportation solutions, but it doesn’t happen overnight," he said.
Neither does the construction of a project that Porcari is eagerly awaiting and which reminds him of Rochester: a new Wegmans Food Markets store being built in nearby Landover, Md., that is slated to open in 2010.