2020 40 Under 40: Michael L. Culotta

Aug. 18, 2020
Michael L. Culotta, Deputy Regional Administrator, Federal Transit Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation
  • One word to describe yourself: Driven.
  • Alma Mater: American University Washington College of Law, J.D. 2007; Canisius College, B.A. (Political Science and Urban Studies) 2002
  • Favorite hobby(s):  Baseball, cheering on my beloved New York Mets (#LGM!), cooking, traveling and most of all, spending time with my amazing wife, Maria, and our two beautiful daughters (ages 1 and 3).
  • Fun fact about yourself:  I love traveling.  During law school, I spent a semester studying abroad in London, Paris, Brussels and Geneva, and after the semester ended, I backpacked my way through Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. I’ve also taken an impromptu coast-to-coast, cross-country road trip with my wife in our Prius. It was one of the most incredible experiences of our lives!
  • Favorite station or stop that you have ever visited or frequent (and why): Hands down it’s Grand Central Terminal in New York City.  It’s historic.  Its Beaux-Arts design is impressive and instantly recognizable in pictures and on film.  And given its status as one of the busiest train stations on the planet, I find it to be a true melting pot of people.  You can stand by the iconic clock—my favorite meeting place in Manhattan—and greet visitors and passersby from every walk of life, speaking every language in the world.  There is no other place like it.
  • Favorite route you have ever ridden or frequent (and why): New York City Transit’s 7 Line.  It’s my favorite route to Citi Field where I can cheer on my beloved New York Mets in the summers.  And on the trip into Manhattan from Queens, at certain bends along the tracks, you can look out of the windows and take in the New York City skyline, with its buildings reaching towards the clouds and its promise of great opportunity.

Michael Culotta serves as the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) Deputy Regional Administrator in its Region 2 Office in New York City. In this role, Culotta provides direction and supervision over a cross-disciplined team that oversees a portfolio of approximately $33 billion in federal investments in the region’s public transportation network.

Culotta is responsible for managing key day-to-day FTA operations in New York and New Jersey. Most notably, Culotta provides direction on the federal environmental review process for FTA-funded projects, awards of FTA funding, and the project management oversight of several of the largest infrastructure projects in the nation. He also is helping to lead FTA’s efforts to administer and expedite the award of $6 billion in CARES Act economic stimulus funding to help the region recover from the impacts of COVID-19.

Prior to his current role, Culotta spent approximately eight years as FTA’s Regional Counsel in Region 2 where he provided the regional office with the day-to-day legal advice on all aspects of FTA’s programs. Additionally, Culotta played a critical role in providing counsel to the region as it established a Hurricane Sandy Recovery Office to administer nearly $10 billion in emergency relief funds for the New York and New Jersey area.

He also served as the lead drafter of FTA’s Public Transportation Agency Safety Plan Rule, which requires rail and bus operators to develop and implement new safety plans based on the innovative and proactive Safety Management System approach to managing risks. In addition to drafting the rule, he helped support FTA’s long-term strategic efforts in developing safety guidelines, best practices, training programs and other technical assistance tools for the industry.

Outside of the office, Culotta serves as a trustee on his local Board of Education, and he is an avid fan of baseball and the New York Mets.

Is there a specific experience that led you to where you are today?

I grew up in a neighborhood that has some of the highest levels of poverty in New York, and where many of the residents faced a variety of social injustices. That experience inspired me to find a way to give back to my community, and to pursue a career focused on public service.

I have found that the public transportation industry provides me with the ability to give back and serve my community, and it is not simply about moving trains and buses—it is about creating opportunities for people.  Throughout my career, I have been able to help advance some great causes, particularly in the areas of civil rights, the creation of jobs and economic opportunities, and the protection of our environment. I have been able to support an industry that people rely upon to safely connect with their friends, families, jobs, schools, parks, doctors, cultural institutions and all of the things that make our local communities incredible places to live.  There is much work to be done, and I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I enjoy the opportunity to serve my community and to serve my country.  Most of all, I love the people that I get to work with and that I get to serve.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

I think that one of the most challenging parts of my job is keeping up with technology.  For decades, public transportation seemed to operate on somewhat traditional models of service delivery—be it bus, train or even ferry.  But in recent years, the landscape has shifted radically, particularly with the development of smartphone apps, hot spots, transportation network companies, autonomous vehicles and the availability of data to inform decision-making.

The infrastructure side of transit also has experienced some significant advancements with the tools used to build and the software that assists with effective project management.  Digging a tunnel today, for instance, is much different than when the Pennsylvania Railroad first completed its tubes below the Hudson River in 1908.  And within those tunnels, there have been significant improvements with equipment that help mitigate the potential for harmful impacts to our environment.

All of these advancements seem to be happening at the speed of light in our industry, but they are innovative ways of connecting people and keeping America moving.  I find it all to be a very exciting part of the job, and with it, I believe that public transportation is full of incredible opportunities.

Accomplishment you’re most proud of and why?

One of my biggest contributions to public transportation was helping to lead FTA’s efforts to develop a nationwide safety program.  In 2012, following a number of tragic transit accidents around the country and a series of recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board, Congress provided FTA with direct safety authority for the first time in its history.  The legislation required FTA to promulgate several regulations aimed at curbing accidents, incidents and other safety-related events.  I served as a lead author on the agency’s Public Transportation Agency Safety Plan Rule, which establishes the framework for the Safety Management System approach to managing transit safety risks.

The final regulation created an innovative program that is proactive, dynamic, scalable for hundreds of transit operators across the country and targeted at addressing the highest safety risks in the transit industry.  The rule also represented an historic shift for FTA as it assumed a role as a safety regulator, after serving primarily as a grant-making agency for more than 50 years.  It was very exciting to help navigate and lead such a complex and important effort that will help keep public transportation among America’s safest modes of travel.  The safety of the riding public and those in our industry is always our number one priority, and I am proud to have made a contribution in this arena.

Best advice/tip/best practice to share from your area of expertise?

I think that my best advice—whether for new lawyers or other career professionals—is to get outside of your comfort zones, embrace new opportunities, and not say ‘no.’  I think that it’s the best way to grow.

I’ll give you an example from my own personal experience.  Many years ago, when I was a rookie attorney fresh out of law school at the U.S. Department of Transportation, my boss was shopping around a number of assignments that the more senior attorneys found to be mundane and uninteresting.  I volunteered for all of them.

One of the assignments involved re-writing a series of 40-year-old policies related to a relatively smaller line of business within the agency.  I spent the better part of six months researching the law, coordinating with a variety of internal offices and drafting a new standard operating procedure.

A couple of years later, we had a high-profile case involving those standard operating procedures—the largest of its kind in United States history—and I suddenly found myself to be the agency’s subject matter expert.  I helped lead a team through the very nuanced process and area of law, and ultimately, we achieved success.

As a result of my efforts, my boss appointed me to be the Federal Transit Administration’s Regional Counsel in its New York City Office—which was my absolute dream job.  That promotion set my career on a completely different trajectory, which led to my executive leadership position, and it was all because I didn’t say “no” early on, I took a risk, and I embraced a new opportunity.  My lesson learned:  Don’t be afraid to step up to the plate, you just might hit a pitch out of the park! 

Why do you like being a part of the public transit industry?

Unlike all the other modes of transportation, public transit is the only mode that focuses exclusively on the movement of people.  I enjoy being part of an industry that helps bring people together and facilitates connections to friends, families, employment, education, healthcare, religious and cultural institutions, parks, recreation, all of the things that we need to go about our daily lives, and all of the things that make our communities so great.  I also very much enjoy playing a role in advancing civil rights, protecting the environment and making strategic investments that create jobs and support economic development opportunities.

I strongly believe that public transportation is one of the great common denominators.  If you ever get the chance to ride the New York City subway, for example, you will find the opportunity to greet people from all walks of life, from every country on the planet, speaking every language in the world.  It is a true melting pot and I find that our work helps advance one of the great stories of America.