Remembering Shirley Ybarra
Shirley Ybarra

Commentary

Remembering Shirley Ybarra

The former Virginia secretary of transportation and Reason policy analyst made many many important impacts on the transportation world.

Back in 2006, as Reason Foundation was planning to open an office in Washington, DC, my friend Jim Burnley, the last Secretary of Transportation of the Reagan administration, introduced me to a prospective employee, Shirley Ybarra. She’d served in the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) under Secretary Elizabeth Dole and had gone on to become secretary of transportation in Virginia. After having dinner with Shirley and learning more about her background, we hired her to be the first DC-based member of our transportation policy team.

It was only in working with Shirley that I learned of her numerous important, often behind-the-scenes, impacts on the transportation world.

In her DOT years, as a special assistant to Secretary Dole, for example, she succeeded in getting through Congress a contentious Reagan administration bill to divest Washington National and Dulles airports from the federal government, freeing them from congressional micromanagement and enabling them to become self-supporting like most other airports.

When she moved to the Virginia DOT in the 1990s, she began as deputy secretary, where her major accomplishment was drafting and getting enacted the Virginia Public-Private Transportation Act, which enabled long-term public-private partnerships and became the model for similar legislation in many other states. It has led to billions of dollars in toll-financed highway improvements in Virginia, which are soon to be replicated across the river in Maryland. And when she became Virginia’s secretary of transportation, she worked with her Maryland counterpart to bring about a replacement for the aging and inadequate Woodrow Wilson Bridge across the Potomac (which had been fought over for a great many years).

Because of her experience working with Congress on the DC airports, Shirley became part of the task force that I helped John Engler of the Business Roundtable organize to push for reforming and upgrading the nation’s air traffic control system by getting it out of the federal government. The plan we developed won support from the airlines and the air traffic controllers’ union, as well as then-Rep. Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee at the time. With Shirley’s help, the resulting bill was twice approved by that committee but ultimately failed due to interest group opposition.

Shirley retired several years ago, and, unfortunately, her health deteriorated. She passed away on November 10. She was a great colleague and friend. She will be mourned by a large community of transportation friends and colleagues. Her positive impact on transportation policy will continue to be felt for a long time to come. 

Shirley’s family told the Washington Post, a visitation will be held Thursday, November 21 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., with the memorial service to follow at 3 pm at Everly Wheatley Funeral Home in Alexandria, VA. All are welcome.

Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation.