Nuria Fernandez, a longtime executive at transportation agencies in New York, Washington, D.C. and Chicago, on Thursday will be named general manager of the Valley Transportation Authority, where she will have responsibility for bringing BART to the South Bay.

Fernandez, who is of Jamaican descent and was born in Panama, will become the first woman and first person of color to head the agency, which oversees transit and highway operations in Santa Clara County. She will succeed Michael Burns, who is retiring at the end of the year after running the VTA since 2005.

"We feel really good about her," said VTA board chairman Joe Pirzynski.

Fernandez, 53, has over 30 years' experience in mass transit, aviation and road planning. She spent the past two years as chief operating officer of New York state's Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Her proposed VTA salary wasn't released, but Burns made $298,700 last year.

She declined to comment on her new job until after she is approved by the VTA board Thursday.

In her new position, Fernandez faces the challenging task of overseeing the $2.3 billion BART extension to San Jose, which is scheduled to open in four years and is the most expensive public works project in South Bay history.

In addition, she will be asked to improve operations of a transit district that by many financial and efficiency measures is one of the poorest performing in the country.

Her career has not been without bumps. In 2008, Fernandez was forced to resign as Chicago aviation commissioner after what the Chicago Tribune described as "two turbulent years on the job." This came after the city failed to close a deal with United Airlines and American Airlines on financing a second phase of expansion at O'Hare International Airport.

Pirzynski said the Chicago experience did not cause the VTA great concern.

"It's one of those things we looked at as the price of doing business," he said. "When we looked at her overall résumé, it's amazing the full range of experience she has."

She has worked in high-level positions at the Federal Transit Administration, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the Chicago Transit Authority and the Chicago Department of Public Works.

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority is the largest transit agency in the country, with a massive, five-year, $24 billion capital program, and a $13.1 billion budget for security. The VTA has a $380 million operating budget.

Fernandez left Panama at 17 to attend college in the United States at her father's urging. She received a civil engineering degree from Bradley University and an MBA from Roosevelt University, both in Illinois.

She serves on the board of directors of the American Public Transportation Association and the board of trustees of the San Jose-based Mineta Transportation Institute.

The VTA also oversees much of the highway planning in the South Bay, including work on rebuilding the Highway 101 interchange at Capitol Expressway and at the 280-880 interchange next to Valley Fair shopping center. The VTA also plans to convert carpool lanes on highways 85 and 101 into express lanes that solo drivers can use for a fee.

Burns brought financial stability to the VTA with a budget that is now balanced but that was as much as $50 million in the red five years ago.

Yet it remains among the most expensive transit agencies to operate in the nation, with some of the lowest ridership in the country, in a county that has some of the highest rates of solo drivers in California. The VTA also faces controversy over projects to remove one lane each way on El Camino Real to run express buses.

Ridership, while steadily growing, remains a disappointment. Fewer than 1 percent of the county's residents ride light rail daily, while it costs taxpayers about $10 to cover the cost of every rider's round trip. Taxpayers subsidize 85 percent of the service -- the second-worst rate in the nation in an area known for sprawling suburbs and lacking a high-employment downtown area like San Francisco.

Fernandez is the third VTA general manager since its inception in 1995. Pete Cipolla ran the agency from 1996 to 2005, followed by Burns.

Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.