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What he watched, he now oversees

Transportation head grew up as lover of Rte. 128

John Cogliano grew up in Canton at the crossroads of two major highways. If he walked up a hill next to his home, he could see the largest rail station in the Boston suburbs, as well as a municipal airport.

It is not surprising, then, that the 41-year-old former manager of the Blue View Nurseries in Canton eventually went into the transportation field.

''We loved the highway. It gave us visibility," said Cogliano. His father and uncle owned the nursery, which spread across the hillside above the ramps linking Interstate 95 and Route 128 (now Interstate 93). ''I loved the highway so much that it's probably why I'm here."

On May 2, Governor Mitt Romney named Cogliano, who now lives in Foxborough, his secretary of transportation. As head of the vast secretariat, Cogliano oversees the state's road and rail systems, as well as boats, buses, and bike paths.

Cogliano is an enthusiastic proponent of Romney's transportation policy, which he said emphasizes a mix of long-term investments in roads and mass transit, as well a ''fix it first" approach to setting priorities.

''Governor Romney's approach to government is very exciting," Cogliano said. ''This is an exciting time to be in transportation."

Cogliano has had a rapid trip to the top of the Executive Office of Transportation. A former midlevel manager at the agency overseeing state properties, Cogliano joined the Massachusetts Highway Department eight years ago as an operations manager in its right-of-way bureau. He then climbed the ladder at MassHighway: deputy director of right-of-way bureau, deputy highway commissioner, acting commissioner, and commissioner. After 2 1/2 years as head of MassHighway, Cogliano got Romney's nod last month to replace Dan Grabauskas, who left the Cabinet post to become general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

When Romney was trying to decide between Cogliano and another candidate, a group of Republican legislators went to the governor and lobbied for Cogliano, who had developed a positive reputation on Beacon Hill. Democrats also supported his appointment.

''I find him to be a very open person who listens well and seeks to accommodate within the framework of his mission," said state Representative Frank Hynes, a Marshfield Democrat and member of the Legislature's joint Transportation Committee.

State Senator Robert L. Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican and also a Transportation Committee member, called Cogliano ''diligent, thorough, and aggressive."

Stanley Gee, division administrator for the Federal Highway Administration, described Cogliano as ''very accessible and very enthusiastic," adding, ''He's willing to listen to new ideas."

Cogliano said he will be taking the governor's transportation plans on the road, holding a series of public hearings across the state over the next few months.

''The governor wants the public to help set the priorities," Cogliano said.

Blue View Nurseries, where Cogliano worked for many years, was a landmark along Route 128 for decades.

The pastoral scene -- which included rows of small trees and shrubs, as well as a farm pond with ducks and geese -- was wedged between the highways and the Blue Hills Reservation.

''We were good neighbors to the highway," Cogliano recalled. ''We would pick up the trash alongside it."

About 15 years ago, Cogliano's family sold the business, and the nursery's green spaces have given way to office buildings.

Originally, the nursery business sat about a mile away, on Route 138, but the state Highway Department took the property in the process of building Route 128 in the 1950s.

Cogliano's father and uncle sued the state over the taking, saying they deserved compensation not only for the value of the land but also their nursery stock. The case went all the way to the state Supreme Judicial Court, which decided in favor of the Coglianos.

John Cogliano started working at the nursery as a child for a nickel an hour. He eventually became director of operations for the nursery, which at its peak had between 75 and 100 employees.

He also received a degree in economics from Boston College, but said, ''My best education was the family business."

When his father and uncle decided to sell, Cogliano began looking for a new line of work. In 1991, he landed a job as a project manager for the state Division of Capital Planning and Operations, now the Division of Capital Asset Management. He worked on projects that also involved MassHighway, and he moved to that agency in 1997.

Most days now, he gets to Boston by catching a commuter train from the Mansfield MBTA station.

''I love it," said Cogliano, whose wife, Liga, works for a medical instruments firm.

''It's guaranteed 35 to 40 minutes. If I have to drive, it can take an hour and a half."

Robert Preer can be reached at preer@globe.com.

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