FDOT Chief Tapped to Run Miami International Airport

Miami International Airport has a new boss.

Jose Abreu, currently the state's secretary of transportation, has been picked as Miami-Dade's aviation director.

Abreu inherits a $566 million operation with a history of mismanaged contracts, political meddling, brazen corruption and the knowledge that previous airport bosses who bucked the system were unceremoniously shoved aside.

''They were really interested in moving forward. I am too,'' Abreu said. ''This isn't just an airport; this is a business center, a jewel for the community. It's my job to fight that perception that's out there that it may not always be a customer-friendly facility.''

Abreu, whose salary is being negotiated, has no experience running an airport, although his resume includes years of managing ambitious projects for Florida's transportation department.

County Manager George Burgess, who announced the hire Friday, said Abreu's experience coupled with his federal and state connections make him well-suited for the job.

''What I needed was a strong manager,'' Burgess said. ''You want someone with aviation experience, if you can find one. But what we really need is someone who can lead a complex organization.''

The county's aviation department has been without a permanent head since November when former director Angela Gittens quit her $200,000-a-year post under pressure from Burgess amid simmering tensions surrounding her management style and handling of the controversial North Terminal project.

As transportation secretary, Abreu was responsible for 8,000 employees, a $6.5 billion annual budget that covered every major road, bridge and rail project from Pensacola to Key West.

By contrast, the aviation department employs more than 1,800 people, and oversees MIA, Opa-locka and Kendall-Tamiami Executive airports.

''We need someone who can really advance our agenda in Tallahassee and Washington,'' said Burgess, pointing to two ongoing issues that would benefit from Abreu governmental expertise:

Dealing with the evolving and increasingly costly security demands from the Transportation Safety Administration.

Participating in the completion of the $1.4 billion Miami Intermodal Center east of MIA, an ambitious transportation hub designed in part to alleviate congestion at the airport, being built by FDOT with state and federal funds.

Abreu also acknowledged that he'll have a learning curve.

''Obviously, I don't underestimate the professional challenge lying ahead of me considering that I have never run an airport,'' he said.

But, he quickly added, he has plenty of experience managing large, complex public agencies and construction projects. Abreu stands to inherit the problem-plagued and over-budget North Terminal project from American Airlines.

Gittens -- hired to help cut through the influence peddling and cronyism that have historically plagued MIA -- found herself in public battles with county leaders and American, the largest and most influential carrier at MIA.

American has been in charge of the North Terminal project, created to help the airline expand its presence in Miami, but the work has mushroomed into a boondoggle, plagued by cost overruns and lawsuits.

American has agreed to let the county run the massive project, estimated to be finished in 2009 with a nearly $2 billion price tag.

Abreu -- the only candidate without aviation experience -- beat out Bruce Baumgartner, former aviation manager of Denver International Airport; Mario Diaz, deputy general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and Steve Wareham, director of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Abreu starts July 11. He replaces interim aviation director Carlos Bonzon, who took over after Gittens quit. Abreu has submitted his resignation to Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed him to his current post in 2003.

Abreu worked his way up the Florida Department of Transportation hierarchy as an engineer, and was FDOT's top administrator in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties from 1995 to 2003, overseeing drainage and canal maintenance to interstate flyovers.

The Cuban-born Abreu has divided his time between Tallahassee and his Miami Lakes home since joining Bush's inner circle. He earned his engineering degree at the University of Miami.

Abreu was born into a transportation family: His father drove a truck; his mother clerked for the Cuban national railroad.

Her grandfather replaced the grandfather of County Hall lobbyist Rodney Barreto as head of the railroad system; Barreto still laughingly refers to Abreu as ''cousin.''

Abreu's wife, Miriam, heads the aviation department's finance division, which means her husband would be her boss.

''We certainly don't want to penalize someone who is making a great contribution in her own right just because of an opportunity presented to her husband,'' Burgess said.

A reassignment is probably in the cards.

Although Burgess said Abreu's salary hasn't been finalized, he won't get a contract, something Gittens demanded.

Bush, in town for the opening of the Ryder headquarters in Doral, praised Burgess' choice.

''It would be an incredible win for Miami International Airport,'' he said. ''MIA needs strong leadership right now.''