By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 23, 2009; B01
RICHMOND -- Virginia's incoming governor, Robert F. McDonnell (R), on Tuesday named Sean Connaughton, former chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, as his choice to manage the state's roads, rails and ports.
McDonnell's pick of Connaughton as transportation secretary marks one of his most important Cabinet selections in a state that has seen its transportation budget shortfall climb into the billions of dollars and lead to thousands of job eliminations and hundreds of unfinished projects.
Connaughton said at a news conference in Richmond on Tuesday that he is "intimately aware of the challenges facing Virginia's transportation system" as it pertains to gridlock and failing infrastructure as he himself has been a daily Northern Virginia commuter for 25 years.
"Much must be done to maintain and to improve our transportation system and reduce the negative impact it has on our business, quality of life of our citizens and the environment,'' he said.
Connaughton, 48, a moderate Republican who ran unsuccessfully for the party's nomination for lieutenant governor in 2005 and has sometimes been at odds with conservatives, was widely praised Tuesday by members of both parties and the business community.
"He's a great choice. I cannot think of anyone better,'' Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William) said. "He's nonpartisan. He's very easy to work with. He's down to earth. He's very smart, and he knows the transportation system."
McDonnell's selection of Connaughton continues a trend of the incoming governor to pick largely noncontroversial, qualified appointments. Two of his selections are high-ranking officials from the administration of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D).
As chairman of the state's second-largest jurisdiction, Connaughton established a county transportation department, which built $300 million worth of roads. He urged voters to support a 2002 referendum that would have added half a cent to the sales tax to raise an estimated $5 billion over 20 years for transportation. The issue divided Republicans; while some in Northern Virginia backed the referendum, many conservatives were opposed. Voters resoundingly rejected the referendum.
He later served as the head of the U.S. Maritime Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation, for three years and now works as the corporate vice president of government affairs for the American Bureau of Shipping.
Several friends and advisers to McDonnell, including former Congressman Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Attorney General William C. Mims, had recommended Connaughton. "He gets high marks across the state,'' Davis said. 'There's no question."
Connaughton's immediate top priorities will be to help complete a national search for a transportation commissioner, find $9 million to reopen 18 highway rest stops closed because of budget cuts and find ways to streamline the department.
"I think transportation planning and transportation policy decisions are too slow, they're too bureaucratic and we're got to have more speed and more decisiveness in order to get things done," McDonnell said.
Connaughton, who lives in Prince William County, commutes now to Washington for his job. He said that he and his family will not move and that he will drive to Richmond.
"Sean Connaughton has experienced the pain of Northern Virginia traffic firsthand,'' said Bob Chase, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a business-supported group that lobbies for transportation funding. "He enters the job with his eyes wide open."
McDonnell named two other Cabinet secretaries at his noon news conference on Capitol Square.
Deputy Attorney General Lisa Hicks-Thomas is to become secretary of administration, a largely overlooked but massive job overseeing state buildings, purchasing and human resources. She is the fourth person McDonnell brought into his leadership team from the attorney general's office. Hicks-Thomas would be the first minority in the McDonnell Cabinet and the third woman.
Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Todd Haymore is to serve as secretary of agriculture and forestry.
The General Assembly must confirm McDonnell Cabinet appointments when its 60-day legislative session begins in January.
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.