From Pioneers to Thought Leaders

Sandra McQuain shines a light on how a call to public service led a generation of trailblazers to rethink US infrastructure

Credit: Getty

President Woodrow Wilson once said, “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, and with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world. You impoverish yourself if you forget this errand."

These sentiments astutely define the motivating factors that have led seasoned veterans and rising stars alike to leave their mark on the US P3 industry. Many of these leaders, who now enjoy considerable success in the private sector, got their start in public service.

The impressive list of private sector experts with public service credentials includes (but is by no means limited to): Bryan Kendro (PennDOT), the National Innovative Program Advisory leader for RS&H; Colin Peppard (LA Metro), an associate vice president with HNTB; Judah Gluckman (DC Government), a vice president with WSP; Joshua Schank (LA Metro), the managing principal of InfraStrategies; and Pat Foye (Port Authority of NY/NJ), the chief executive of ASTM. Also on that list would be BDO’s Seth Miller Gabriel and HDR’s Kathryn Roos, both of whom worked for the District of Columbia Office of Public-Private Partnerships (DC OP3)

Gabriel, who earned a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from George Washington University, went to graduate school with visions of becoming a city manager or leading a federal agency. His career path changed when he “fell in with these somewhat unorthodox professors teaching courses on government-business relations - which became public-private partnerships”. Early in his career he worked for both private sector businesses and public policy organizations, but his interest to work in the public sector never waned.

It was in 2015 that Gabriel took a chance and went to work for DC government. “I applied for the position [...] with no political connections to the District government at the time,” he states. “I was drawn to the idea of taking everything I had learned in the P3 space and using those tools to help DC move projects forward. I applied for the opportunity to build a new office in such a dynamic place, like the District of Columbia.”

Roos, who earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture from the University of Notre Dame and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Harvard Kennedy School, served as chief of staff to Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who currently serves as the US Secretary of Transportation. She parlayed her passion for the built environment into an opportunity to work as a lead designer for a new university campus in Swansea, UK. It was there she discovered the “power of public-private partnerships”.

Like Gabriel, Roos joined DC government because “I have always enjoyed developing and delivering complex projects, many of which fall into the category of ‘first of its kind.’ When I was presented with the opportunity to join the District’s Department of Transportation to help deliver its first-ever P3, I jumped at the opportunity.”

Both Gabriel and Roos speak with pride on the transformative implications of their work for DC government and the DC Smart Street Lightning Project they led.

Gabriel reflects: “I am most proud of the DC OP3 team that I helped to build. They are some of the finest professionals I have ever had the pleasure to work with and they have gone on to do great things in the public and private sectors. After my team, I am proud of the work we did to fulfill the office’s mission. The DC OP3 represents the very model of what, at least what I think, a public owner’s P3 office should be: finding and promoting important projects. I believe I have seen aspects of what we built at DC OP3 in nearly every active P3 office today.”

Roos adds: “There are two benefits of the project that I am most excited about: first is the incorporation of remote monitoring and control sensors that will tell the streetlight team when the lights aren’t working, which provides equitable service to all neighborhoods in the District. The second benefit is the fact that the District will be eliminating 38,000 tons of greenhouse gas each year of the 15-year contract through the conversion to LED.”

After leaving DC, Gabriel worked for the Association for the Improvement of American Infrastructure (AIAI) and is currently the director of infrastructure and P3s for BDO USA. Roos, who joined HDR about a year ago, serves as a strategic consultant to the organization.  

In the past, there were only a handful of agencies pursuing P3 projects, meaning there was a limited supply of experienced owners available for hire. Today, with more and more cities, states and universities establishing P3 offices and with the launch of AIAI’s P3 Certification program, the private sector could soon see an uptick in available talent with valuable public sector experience. However, it also begs the question: might the public sector have the same opportunity to cherry pick from its private sector counterparts? 

When asked if he would ever consider a return, Gabriel says: “Yes, I certainly hope that I will have the chance to serve in the public sector again. It was the most rewarding of all the roles that I have had, and I encourage everyone in P3s to work in the public sector at least once. I would love to get that chance to be an owner again.”

Roos, who shares how much she enjoys the variety of projects her current position offers, indicates she would leave the door open to a return stating, “never say never”.

It is evident in the way Gabriel, Roos and their colleagues give back to the industry through teaching and advocacy that the US P3 market is flush with professionals who value their work as both a calling and an opportunity to transform the communities in which they live. And, not surprisingly, it is these leaders who are enjoying the most success and having the biggest impact.