Biden Amtrak Nominees Might Not Get Vote

Although the nominations announced by the Biden administration to the Amtrak board of directors last week have drawn mixed reviews, it may all be a moot point.

Writing in the newsletter of the American Association of Private Rail Car Owners, Ross Capon, the organization’s Washington correspondent, indicated that the nominations may not receive a Senate vote.

Capon once served as executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers – now known as the Rail Passengers Association – and cited the view of The Eno Foundation’s Jeff Davis.

 “If the last few years are any indication, the only way the nominations will move to the Senate floor is if paired with future Republican nominees,” Davis wrote.

Davis said the Senate is unlikely to confirm an all-Democratic slate just as it refused to confirm the all-Republican slate presented by the Trump Administration until mid-2020. 

Even after Trump nominated two Democrats, the Senate still failed to act on the nominations because of objections raised by senators representing states served by Amtrak’s Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) placed a hold on the nominations of Democrat Sarah Feinberg and Republican Todd Rokita.

Moran said he wanted to hear more from Feinberg on her views pertaining to Amtrak’s long-distance trains and that Rokita had failed to answer any of his questions on the matter.

Moran said he wanted to hear that all of the board nominees were supportive of Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

Until last year, the 10-member Amtrak board was mandated by federal law to include “balanced representation of the major geographic regions served by Amtrak.”

That changed with approval of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was approved by Congress last fall.

It contained language requiring that two Amtrak board members must reside along the Northeast Corridor and four must be from outside that region.

That is to include two members from states served by state-supported service and two members from states served by long-distance trains. A single individual cannot fill both a state and long-distance slot.

The Amtrak board currently has two vacancies and the remaining members are all serving on expired terms.

The only Biden nominee from outside the Northeast is Christopher Koos, the mayor of Normal, Illinois, who was nominated for the board by the Trump administration but not confirmed by the Senate.

Among the critics of the Biden nominees was Bob Johnston, the passenger rail reporter for Trains magazine.

In a piece posted on the magazine’s website this week, Johnston argued that the Biden nominations largely fail to comply with IIJA language as to Amtrak governing board membership.

Johnston wrote that having four of the five nominees from the Northeast Corridor region is in contradiction of the law’s goal of strengthening the national network.

Capon made similar comments. “Some rail passenger advocates, remembering the near-death experience of long-distance trains in 2018 under [Amtrak] President Richard Anderson, and concerned about limited capacity (and in some cases frequency) of long-distance trains today, are unhappy with the nominations, including their geographic concentration on the south end of the Northeast Corridor.”

One of the Biden nominees is Anthony Coscia, who has served on the Amtrak board since 2010 and been its chair since 2013. Capon said the re-nomination of Coscia can be viewed as an endorsement of current Amtrak leadership. 

Aside from the four Biden nominations, three more Amtrak board members are expected to be put forth by Senate Republicans.

By law the secretary of transportation or his/her representative sits on the Amtrak board. The Amtrak CEO is a non-voting member.

That leaves eight positions to be appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate.

No more than five of the eight presidential nominations can be from the same party. At least one board member must have a disability (as defined in section 3 of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C. 12102)).

The IIJA requires that the disabilities member must have a “demonstrated history of, or experience with, accessibility, mobility, and inclusive transportation in passenger rail or commuter rail.”

The Biden nominees received praise from RPA, which had in the week before they were announced sought to make an issue out of the lack of nominees to the Amtrak board.

RPA head Jim Mathews issued a statement applauding the White House for taking the group’s concerns seriously.

“We look forward to working closely with these nominees to understand their vision for Amtrak’s future,” Mathews said.

However, RPA issued another statement this week calling for Biden to appoint Amtrak board members who represent a broad geographic region.

The statement said Biden “missed an opportunity” to nominate board members from outside the Mid-Atlantic region.

 SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said in a statement the Biden Amtrak board slate “continues to prioritize the concerns of labor as he [Biden] and the DOT pursue an unprecedented and historic transformation of the nation’s passenger-rail network.”

Johnston, though, was not as approving and probably speaks for many rail passenger advocates in saying that none of Biden’s Amtrak board nominees have “hands-on business credentials dealing with inventory pricing, sales management, or hospitality” and that none of them have experience in the passenger railroad industry.

He has a point. The IIJA mandates that Amtrak board members have general business and financial experience, experience or qualifications in transportation, freight and passenger rail transportation, travel, hospitality, cruise line, or passenger air transportation businesses, or representatives of employees or users of passenger rail transportation or a State government.

Johnston’s article can be read at https://www.trains.com/trn/news-reviews/news-wire/bidens-amtrak-board-nominations-lack-qualifications-demanded-by-congress-analysis/

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