My Christmas Letter

At this time last year, I was three months into what turned out to be ten months of unemployment and recovering from a cardiac stent insertion. As I like to say, it was not a lifestyle that I would recommend very highly. So things are definitely merrier this Christmas. Seeing the turmoil and tough decisions that so many people are still facing makes me realize that I dodged more than a few bullets over the past year.

In July, I moved 100 miles north to Columbus and began work at the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) supervising the work of Ohio’s railroad inspectors statewide. I’ve always been an infrastructure geek and railroads have been a particular interest for the past few years. Warren Buffett is buying one of the country’s biggest railroads (BNSF) and he seems to be a pretty smart guy so there must be a future in rail, right? Mostly, I’m glad to have a paycheck, health insurance and meaningful work to do.

Charlie & Claire were both in marching band this fall (drum & tuba, respectively) and are now playing in the school jazz bands and orchestra through the winter. Charlie is in the winter drum line again, continues with his piano studies and is learning to drive (yikes!) Claire is starting to take trombone lessons – I think she plans to boss the boys in the bass brass section when she gets to high school next year. They are smart, happy kids and I love that they both love music.

We’ve all seen tremendous change during the first decade of the 21st Century. I suspect that the pace of change is only going to increase in the coming years. I’m sure we’ll face challenges and opportunities we can barely imagine today.  It’s clear to me that my most important job in the coming decade is to help Charlie & Claire successfully make the leap from bright, happy, talented teens to confident, independent and responsible adults.

Being in a position to do this is the greatest gift I’ve ever received.

Love to you all and happy new year!


John’s PUCO Commissioner Application Letter

Tomorrow, I am driving to Columbus, the state capital of Ohio, to submit my application to be appointed by Governor Strickland as a Commissioner of the Public Utilites Commission of Ohio (PUCO).  The mission of the PUCO is “to assure all residential and business consumers [have] access to adequate, safe and reliable utilty services at fair prices, while facilitating an environment that provides competitive choices.” As readers of this blog know, I am a passionate believer in the importance of infrastructure for the economic growth of a community, state or nation. I hope my passion is expressed in a compelling way in my application letter below.

Officially, my chances of being appointed are pretty slim but would be exactly “zero” if I didn’t apply. The process will be very political (partisan and otherwise) and many, many diverse voices will be appropriately considered in the selection process. However, I read an important quote a few days ago, “The only things that we should doubt are the limits we place on ourselves.”  I don’t know who to attribute it to but thanks for the encouragement to reach high.

I’ll let you know how this goes. Call or write to your Ohio Representatives and Senators or the Governor if you have an opinion about my qualifications for the job, pro or con. Your government leaders probably haven’t heard from you in a while and they need to know what you think about a lot of things.

My resume is on my LinkedIn profile. You can find a link to that over there on the right.

January 8, 2009

Public Utilities Commission Nominating Council
C/o Public Utilities Commission of Ohio
180 East Broad Street, 13th Floor
Columbus, OH 43215-3793

Dear Members of the Nominating Council:

The availability of efficient, safe, properly priced, well-maintained and technologically advanced infrastructure is an essential prerequisite for the creation of wealth, prosperity and a high quality of life. Ohio’s public and private investments in railroads in the mid-1800’s enabled the growth of the steel, rubber and automotive industries in northeast Ohio just as the construction of the Miami-Erie canal proceeded the chemical and paper industries in the southwest. Twentieth century investments in energy systems, telecommunications and highways enabled Ohio to become one of the world’s great manufacturing economies and brought the prosperity necessary to build and support our state’s great cultural institutions and education systems. We must honor this legacy by ensuring that Ohio continues to invest in and guide the proper development of its utilities and infrastructure. Ohio can only remain globally relevant if our infrastructure is technologically advanced, sustainably designed, properly maintained and made available to its customers and citizens in a socially equitable manner. Infrastructure is the foundation of economic development.

Since 1985, I have lived in southwest Ohio, in Hamilton and Warren Counties, and I am a Democrat. My understanding and appreciation of our infrastructure has grown through a public and private sector career of planning, building, buying and promoting local and regional infrastructure and utilities.  In my roles of transportation planner, real estate developer, infrastructure builder and economic developer, I have earned a reputation for strategic thinking, creative and insightful analysis, high integrity, fiscal responsibility and a collaborative style of leadership. My professional networks and associations extend throughout the state and the country. I have acquired a deep understanding of the breadth of Ohio’s industry and culture, the complexities of its governance, its unfulfilled promises and its incredible potential.

I believe that as the newest Commissioner of the PUCO, I will add a vitally fresh perspective to the Commission as a licensed professional engineer, economic developer and experienced community builder. I appreciate your consideration of me as a candidate for this important position. If appointed Commissioner, I promise to be an uncompromising advocate for the State of Ohio and for all who look to the state’s infrastructure to enable, not entitle, their future prosperity.


John E. Fonner, P.E.

Do it Now!

The environment demands that we use less oil and find better energy sources for our mobility. Our transportation infrastructure is crumbling due to insufficient funding provided largely by fuel taxes. Unfriendly nations are enriched and their hostility is funded by our globally unrivaled consumption of oil.  Raise the federal gas tax now!

Better Place & Better Ideas

I watched the press conference announcing the Better Place project in Hawaii, this exciting company will be fascinating to watch over the coming months and years.  As others get serious about electric vehicles, there will need to be standards set and non-proprietary recharging technologies created.  I can envision a chain of battery exchange & recharge stations that will service not just Better Place vehicles but also their competitors’ vehicles as well. Move over BP and Exxon, Big John’s Sun Spot is coming to a corner near you.

Invest at home – Infrastructure & Jobs

Bob Herbert of the New York Times gets it. Today’s column makes a forceful case for intense, well planned infrastructure investment as a crucial part of President Obama’s stimulus package.

Team of Rivals – another Lincoln lesson for Barrack Obama

As President-elect Obama has been considering candidates for his administration’s cabinet secretaries and other key roles, there have been plenty of references to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 bestseller, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. The book details Lincoln’s selection of the most talented politicians and leaders he could assemble for his cabinet, many of them his bitter political rivals, in order to lead  the nation in a most difficult period.

Another important insight provided by Ms. Goodwin is Lincoln’s emphasis, early in his career, on “internal improvements” (ie public infrastructure) as a vital means of lifting the country’s workers out of their lives of poverty. The mid-1800s saw the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution with the construction of great infrastructure projects such as the Trans-Continental Railroad, the great canals in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, the invention of the telegraph and the origins of America’s energy reliance on coal and oil. Lincoln’s understanding of infrastructure as an economic catalyst is highlighted in the following excerpt from the book:

Lincoln knew firsthand the deprivations, the marginal livelihood of the subsistence farmer unable to bring produce to market without dependable roads. He had been paid the meager wages of a hired hand. Primitive roads, clogged waterways, lack of rail connections, inadequate schools – such were not merely issues to Lincoln, but hurdles he had worked all his life to overcome in order to earn an ampler share of freedom. These “improvements” to the infrastructure would enable thousands of farming families to emerge from the kind of poverty in which the Lincoln family had been trapped, and would permit new cities and towns to flourish.

Lincoln’s dedication to internal improvements and economic development was given strength, nourishment, and power, so the historian Gabor Boritt persuasively argues, by his passionate commitment “to the ideal that all men should receive a full, good, and ever increasing reward for their labors so they might have the opportunity to rise in life.” Economic development provided the basis, Lincoln said much later, that would allow every American “an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.” To Lincoln’s mind, the fundamental test of a democracy was its capacity to “elevate the condition of men, to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear paths of laudable pursuit for all.” A real democracy would be a meritocracy where those born in the lower ranks could rise as far as their natural talents and discipline might take them.

Young Lincoln’s great ambition in the 1830s, he told Joshua Speed, was to be the “DeWitt Clinton of Illinois.” The pioneering New York governor had opened opportunities for all New Yorkers and left a permanent imprint on his state when he persuaded the legislature to support the Erie Canal project. In the Illinois legislature, Lincoln hoped to leave a similar imprint by way of an ambitious program of internal improvements.

Excerpt from Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, copyright 2005

Our nation’s infrastructure needs serious repair and improvement if we are going to compete in the 21st Century global economy. An intense, sustained effort to rebuild and improve our existing infrastructure will provide jobs for today’s workers. We must also invest in the infrastructure of new energy sources to replace our dependence on fossil fuels that began in the 19th Century.  This vital and massive effort must be among the top of our national priorities in the new administration.