When you’re stuck in traffic or when the train is running late, it might be easy to curse the infamous Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT).
Secretary of Transportation Leslie S. Richards hears your pain.
As the head of PennDOT, she oversees 40,000 miles of state roadways, 126 public-use airports, three ports and 64 operating railroads, as well as more than 11,000 employees.
On Jan. 24 at Fox Rothschild LLP, Richards will speak at 6 p.m. at a professional women’s networking event put on by Women’s Philanthropy, an affinity group of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
“Transportation is really tied to the quality of life, communities, where people live and how they get to work, how they go about their daily life,” said Richards, who belongs to Beth Tikvah B’nai Jeshurun. “It helps get freight and goods movement as well to those communities and helps build the economic vitality here in Pennsylvania and everywhere.”
Richards said she plans to speak about PennDOT and women’s leadership.
Richards has put together the Transportation Investment Plan and the PennDOT Road MaP to improve the state’s roadways, but considers PennDOT Connects, a program she began to get stakeholders involved in their communities’ infrastructure projects, her greatest
“Because of this program, we’re seeing improvements in pedestrian safety because we better understand how people walk around these assets or use these assets,” said Richards, who has lived in Montgomery Country for 25 years. “We’re seeing improvements in trails and getting them built and partnering with communities if they don’t have the funding.”
Richards earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and urban studies from Brown University and a master’s degree in regional planning from the University of Pennsylvania. She started her career with the Environmental Protection Agency and also did some work for the City Planning Commission and the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation.
She became a stay-at-home mom for eight years and became active in her township as well as the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.
She rejoined the workforce at an environmental engineering firm, where she became interested in transportation projects.
“I fell in love with it as we started to work with so many different stakeholder groups, and also it’s really gratifying to start something and see it built,” Richards said.
She was then asked to run for the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors. Her initial response was a firm no, but her husband — whom she met on a Jewish Federation mission to Israel — convinced her to give
it a shot.
She won the election. After four years, she went on to serve as vice chairwoman of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners and, in 2015, Gov. Tom Wolf appointed her secretary of transportation.
Because of her professional background as a planner, she wanted to improve planning and engineering while in office.
She is the first woman to serve as secretary of transportation, and advancing diversity and inclusion within PennDOT and at partner organizations has been one of her goals. One way she has done that is by adopting gender-neutral language in the agency.
She has declined to work on Yom Kippur, even when she was in Melbourne, Australia for the ITS (Intelligent Transport Systems) World Congress in 2016. She skipped that day of the conference and went to a local synagogue instead.
When, in 2018, the conference was held in Copenhagen and once again fell on Yom Kippur, she left for services. But this time, a group of other Jewish attendees accompanied her.
“I jokingly have earned the nickname ‘The Sandy Koufax of Transportation’ because I won’t work on certain days, but really it’s just Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” she said.
Women’s Philanthropy Director Marni Davis met Richards at a Jewish Business Network event and reached out to her about a speaking gig.
“She’s an amazing role model and someone that we feel other professional Jewish women in our community would like to hear from,” Davis said. “We’re thrilled to have her.” l