Q&A with WTS 2020 Woman of the Year and TCA Deputy CEO Valarie McFall

Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) Deputy CEO Valarie McFall was named Woman of the Year by the Orange County Chapter of Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS) during its “Hindsight is 2020: Recounting a Year of Success” virtual event, held Dec. 17. We sat down (over Zoom) with McFall to talk about the honor and her career in transportation.

What inspired you to get involved in the transportation industry? Was there an “aha” moment?

My decision to get involved in transportation was inspired by growing up in Orange County – specifically in Irvine. Irvine was filled with mostly orange groves and endless rows of strawberry fields. Each spring, the air was heavy with the fragrance of the surrounding orange blossoms. Orange County was largely undeveloped and many residents, like my parents, traveled to Los Angeles for work. They would spend hours traveling to and from their jobs every day, and traffic seemed to get worse each year. I recall vividly being on the I-5 traveling north, just past where it connects to the 55, and it was always bumper to bumper, no matter what time of day. Of course our car, like many others at the time, had no air conditioning, which made the drive during those hot summer days even worse.

As Orange County grew, it began to come into its own as a major employment hub – no longer a sleepy bedroom community to the big city of Los Angeles. With that growth came broad opportunities, including opportunities to improve transportation in the region. The once rural Orange County that was filled with agriculture, small freeways and a lacking arterial system became an economic powerhouse filled with employment centers, housing and a robust transportation system. Orange County balanced this needed growth with an emphasis on maintaining the County’s roots. The County accomplished this by preserving thousands of acres of open space. It was seeing the ability to balance the transportation needs of the County with the ability to maintain a sense of its historical focus on land that really propelled me into the transportation field. I have never looked back.

What are you most proud of in your career?

I am most proud of the many glass ceilings I’ve shattered throughout my career. I was a single mom of two, working and attending college full time. I graduated UCI and immediately hit the ground running. I worked in the consulting world for a number of years prior to working for TCA. It was at TCA where I really excelled. I was so excited that I was able to finally use my passion for balancing transportation planning with environmental priorities. 

I was able to identify biologically important lands that TCA acquired as permanent open space, ensuring future generations would be able to enjoy them; constructed a state-of-the-art wildlife fence that protected drivers and animals; partnered with universities to look for solutions to preserve wildlife and reduce the risk of wildland fire; and implemented an organics use policy for our open space. This was something that TCA two Board’s of Directors, especially the former chair and mayor of Irvine, were extremely passionate about. 

While at TCA, I grew in my profession working alongside other women in our engineering, finance, communications and legislative departments. As I progressed, I became TCA’s first female director of environmental planning, then TCA’s first chief of environmental planning, and now TCA’s first deputy CEO. A lot of these accomplishments of course could not have been achieved without the support of my fellow staff and CEOs, especially my latest opportunity to serve as TCA’s deputy CEO under Samuel Johnson. Samuel’s support and forward-thinking approach extends to every person in our organization. He has created an atmosphere at TCA that inspires staff to push the limits and take extra steps to achieve greatness. I am truly blessed to work alongside him and all our talented staff.

I also credit much of my success to working with my Boards of Directors over the years, including the many strong women who hold positions of significance and help to steer our Agencies on the right path for the future. It is through this constant desire to push the envelope and be open to learning from others that one can truly succeed. While I still have a lot to learn, I am very grateful to WTS Orange County for honoring me as 2020’s Woman of the Year. I am truly humbled.

What are you most excited to see in the future of transportation?

I am most excited to see our industry of transportation professionals continue to work beside our leaders here in Orange County to improve mobility. This means implementing innovative approaches that ensure sustainable funding for key transportation projects.  Equally important in my eyes is that Orange County continue to be on the forefront of balancing transportation needs with the environment. I’m very proud of the work TCA has done in this area.

Specific projects that I am most excited about include the 241/91 Express Connector. TCA is partnering with Caltrans, Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) and Riverside County Transportation Commission (RCTC) on the 241/91 Express Connector – a new direct, median-to-median tolled connector between the 241 Toll Road and the Express Lanes in the median of State Route 91. The project will provide commuters the convenience and reliability of additional travel choices by allowing them to utilize either the available managed lanes on the 91 Express Lanes and 241 Toll Road or the general-purpose lanes, depending on where they live and work. This is critical to providing congestion relief as employment, population and housing continue to grow in Southern California. This project is in the final design phase, with construction expected to begin in 2023 and completion slated in 2025.

What advice would you offer future generations of leaders, in particular women, in transportation?

The advice that I can offer to future generations, particularly women, is to do what you are passionate about. It is through this passion that you will be successful. Don’t ever close yourself off to an opportunity, or to listen and learn. I have learned so much over the years from the many great women in my life – the women I work with at TCA, everyone at WTS, the many women in the transportation field and the women on my Boards of Directors. Each of them has offered so much insight into how to balance their professional and home life, all have taught me not to be afraid to speak up or ask for advice and always strive for more. Every woman has a unique story and passion, and I strongly encourage each of you to follow that passion as it will open many more doors of opportunity.

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