DESI in the News: Kris Kolluri living the American dream

New transportation commissioner living the American dream

BETH DeFALCO Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. – After being sworn in as New Jersey’s transportation commissioner, Kris Kolluri stood at the podium, momentarily speechless.

Standing there, the 37-year-old Kolluri was overwhelmed by thoughts of what an immigrant could achieve and of what his parents left behind in India for him to achieve it.

For seven long seconds, he tried to pull himself together. He tried not to cry.

Holding a Cabinet-level post – a job New Jersey’s governor called one of the most important in the state was an impossible feat to imagine when his family emigrated from India to the United States 20 years ago, Kolluri explained.

His father was 50, his mother 40, when they packed their sons and left their homeland. Though his father had his Ph.D. in physics, he couldn’t find work for more than two months, Kolluri recalled.

“They sacrificed everything that they knew – their friends, their jobs,” Kolluri said. “They didn’t come here for themselves but they came here for my brother and me.”

At last week’s swearing-in ceremony, Gov. Jon S.

Corzine told Kolluri that “no one has demonstrated with their life’s work a greater commitment to the American promise, the American dream, than you have.”

Kolluri told a packed room of elected officials, department employees and family how honored he was by the appointment. “It’s a testament to an immigrant who was welcomed by the state of New Jersey and by this country. I was provided the kind of opportunity that you only read about in fairly tales,” he said.

Commuting in New Jersey, however, is no fairly tale.

Despite a steady stream of road projects in the works and increased ridership on trains and buses, traffic congestion is a constant headache in the Garden State.

The average one-way commute time for New Jersey drivers is 28.5 minutes, more than four minutes longer than the national average of 24.3 minutes. Only New York (30.4) and Maryland (30.2) had longer average times, according to Census Bureau figures.

Looking forward, Kolluri said his priority is ensuring that all rails, roadways and bridges are safe, favoring a “fix it first” approach before building new systems.

He vowed to fight a federal appeals court ruling that would allow big trucks passing through New Jersey to travel on local roads. He also hopes to develop a uniform road sign policy to make it easier for drivers to navigate New Jersey’s often-confusing highway system.

Serving as the department’s acting commissioner since Jan. 31, Kolluri has already faced one of the worst winter storms to hit New Jersey in recent memory. He also played a pivotal role in helping pass Corzine’s plan to fix a nearly broke Transportation Trust Fund.

Before becoming transportation commissioner, Kolluri was chief of staff under the prior commissioner, Jack Lettiere, and previously served as DOT’s assistant commissioner for governmental relations. He has worked as a top aide in several congressional offices, including as a senior policy adviser to House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt.

Kolluri, who lives in West Windsor, has a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University, a master’s degree in international business from Johns Hopkins University and a law degree from Georgetown University.

After earning his law degree, Kolluri left DOT last year to join the Parker McCay law firm as the firm’s principal attorney for transportation law. But he didn’t stay away from government work for long.

“When I left DOT in 2005, it was a very bittersweet moment for me. I was excited to start a new career in the private sector, but little did I know that six-minute billable increments suck,” he joked.

Although Kolluri faced questions about finishing law school while being paid $113,000 a year as chief of staff of the transportation department, he sailed through his Senate confirmation hearing to assume DOT’s top administrative post.

“He’s a public policy expert in my opinion,” said Sen.

Andrew R. Ciesla, R-Ocean, who sits on the Senate Transportation Committee.

“He’s fair,” Ciesla said. “He’s able to build consensus on both sides of the aisle. He does it by simply treating everyone as though they’re important.”

Kolluri says he’s ready to make the most of his opportunity.

“To a state that has welcomed, nourished and provided opportunity to four immigrants from India,” Kolluri said, “I have much to return to the people of New Jersey.”