2020 40 Under 40: Kate Sylvester

Aug. 18, 2020
Kate Sylvester, Director of Planning and Capital Programming, Maryland Transit Administration (MTA)
  • Alma Mater: MIT
  • Favorite hobby: Biking to breweries and beaches
  • Favorite station or stop that you have ever visited or frequent: Davis St. station on the 'L' in Chicago. This was my entry point for getting to know Chicago as an undergrad at Northwestern, and the first station I considered "my" station. I think of this as one of the places where my love for cities and transit started.
  • Favorite route you have ever ridden or frequent: I used to ride the Penn Line on the MARC commuter rail from Washington Union Station to my job near BWI Airport. Flying past cars sitting in traffic, friendly conductors, beautiful snow-covered trees after the occasional snowstorm and spying wildlife on the walk from the station.

Kate Sylvester has a background in both civil engineering and planning. Through various roles at the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), she has designed, developed and executed multi-modal projects that require knowledge of both technical processes and community interests.

Beginning as a transportation planner at the MDOT’s Secretary Office in 2010, Sylvester launched the Maryland Bikeways Program, laying the groundwork for more than 100 projects that enhanced bicycle access, encouraged development of trails and bike lanes and supported economic development through improved access to communities and businesses.

As assistant division chief at MDOT State Highway Administration, she streamlined the project development process for advancing large transportation projects through transportation planning and approval. In her most recent leadership positions at MDOT Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) Office of Planning and Capital Programming, she has been integral to the development of projects that leverage partnerships and encourage collaboration.

In 2018, she oversaw the launch of the Statewide Transit Innovation Grant (STIG), now in its third year with awards totaling nearly $2 million in funding across 13 projects. The STIG program encourages agencies and jurisdictions across Maryland to propose high-priority initiatives that are not served by traditional funding sources. Sylvester’s awareness of local issues led to program guidance that allowed for a more collaborative model, enabling the grant’s local match component to be covered in a variety of ways tailored to smaller systems and municipalities.

In 2018-2019, she was directly responsible for creating a platform to better integrate the perspectives of older adults and people with disabilities into the transportation planning process. She not only personally brought the grant opportunity to her team’s attention, but she also insisted that staff focus on actionable projects that would make real change in participants’ lives. Under her guidance, what began as a six-month project to brainstorm ideas with the Maryland Department of Disabilities evolved into an official inclusive transportation program within MDOT MTA. Sylvester’s efforts linked departments across three state agencies to employ representatives from advocacy groups and federally designated Centers for Independent Living as subject matter experts capable of conceiving, testing and implementing pilot projects alongside agency staff. As a result, MDOT MTA created new approaches to

developing braille route books and station wayfinding signage that prioritize the lived experience of the people who would be most impacted.

Since late 2018, she has played a pivotal role in shaping a new Regional Transit Plan for Central Maryland that will define public transportation goals over the next 25 years. She’s responsible for balancing the interests of key stakeholders, starting with the Maryland state legislature and extending to an 11-person appointed commission, five jurisdictions spanning rural and urban areas, multiple local transit agencies and advocates, and the general public.

She consistently identifies opportunities to better serve local jurisdictions who are under financial and capacity constraints because she is both empathetic and resourceful. With the recent spread of COVID-19, she sprang into action, planning for what was an unknown and potentially lengthy disruption. With limited warning and minimal preparation, her guidance smoothed the transition from onsite work to full telework.

“I love trying to make life a little easier for transit riders and knowing that making transit work well will help make our city stronger. There are never enough resources to accomplish everything we wish we could. Being creative to try to stretch our resources to do more is a challenge that always motivates me.”

“If you're not getting useful feedback from the public, you're not asking the right questions at the right time in the right way. Taking the time to focus and be intentional about how to involve the public really pays off with better projects and service.”

“I've worked in different aspects and modes of transportation for 15 years and moved into transit a couple of years ago. I like that the relationship with our customers is the driving force in transit. While many other factors, stakeholders, and influences are always at play, it all comes back to how our decisions impact our customers.”