Happening Now

Bipartisan Senate Blockade Holds on Amtrak Board Nominees

June 22, 2023

A bipartisan group of senators announced yesterday that they will continue to blockade the Biden Administration’s nominees to Amtrak’s Board of Directors until there is a slate of appointees that meet the requirement for geographic diversity.

Rail Passengers has made securing a voice for passengers in the Midwest, West, and the South a key plank of our advocacy over the past few years, including as part of this year's advocacy push during RailNation:DC. You can join us in this campaign by asking your Senator to stand up for a voice for National Network passengers on the Amtrak Board of Directors.

Lack of Geographical Representation a Sticking Point

During the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation nomination hearing, Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Ranking Member Ted Cruz (R-TX) were joined by Senators John Tester (D-MT) and Jerry Moran (R-KS) in announcing that they will continue their blockade of the nominees until the Biden Administration and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) come together to advance a slate of nominees with more National Network representation.

Congress included language in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) that requires Amtrak’s Board to include two individuals from the Northeast Corridor (NEC), and four individuals from regions outside of the NEC—two from states served by an Amtrak long-distance service and two from states served by an Amtrak State-supported service.

Nothing Personal

Three of the current slate of six nominees appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee: Tony Coscia, current Chair of the Amtrak Board who is up for renomination; Mayor Chris Koos of Normal, Illinois; and Joel Szabat, who previously served at the Department of Transporation in both the Obama and Trump administrations.

The bipartisan coalition of Senators were clear that their blockade wasn’t an indictment of the quality of the nominees. Rather, it is a defense of the intent behind provisions passed into law as part of the BIL that are meant to ensure rural America and State-Supported routes have a seat at the table.

“Look, I have made my position on nominees clear as it applies to the Amtrak board,” said Sen. Tester. “I was one of 10 people—five Republicans and five Democrats—that negotiated the bipartisan infrastructure law. It did not happen by accident, we intentionally put language in that would have the Amtrak board members reflect our nation's geography with specific requirements on how many members could come from Northeast Corridor states relative to other parts of the country. The Administration put forward a list of very good nominees, incredibly good nominees. But they did not comply with the geographic requirements.”

The Senators were also noncommittal about which Northeast Corridor nominee should bow out.

“I don’t know… who wants to flip a coin?” joked Senator Moran.

Szabat’s Debut

While we don't know which nomination will be withdrawn, it’s unlikely to be that of Joel Szabat—he is the only Republican on the current slate, and federal statues require that no more than five appointees to the Amtrak board may be members of the same political party. Szabat previously served as Assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs in 2018 and as Under Secretary of Transportation for Policy in 2020, where he acted as Secretary Elaine L. Chao’s representative on the Amtrak Board from June, 2019 through January, 2021.

In his first appearance before the Senate since his nomination, he pointed to his time working on the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, where he learned from mayors of small and rural towns how vital intercity public transportation is to their mobility and economic development.

“If confirmed, I am committed to maintain and enhance Amtrak as a nationwide rail passenger corporation,” stated Szabat in his testimony.

When asked by Senator Jacky Rosen (D-NV) what he would do to improve service on the California Zephyr for her constituents, Szabo argued for moving beyond the existing barebones model in place along much of the National Network.

“The message you would get from working with the mayors [in the EAS program] is the two things that matter the most are reliability and frequency,” said Szabat. “So if we’re going to have a long-distance network, if we’re going to have a National Network, then you need to have a network where the routes are not just a once-a-day or three times a week service, but a frequent service. Because with a frequent service, and a reliable service, you will build up the customer base that we need in order to make this a service that both works for the community but is also less of a burden on the taxpayer.”

[Editor’s note: increased frequency can reduce a passenger railroad's operational deficit, and in some cases produce sufficient farebox revenue to cover above-the-rail costs. However, this inevitably increases the overall capitol costs, which almost always requires increased public funding for capital expenditures. Which is ok! Highways and airports receive generous public subsidies, providing an essential service in return for this public investment.]

Plans for Expansion Outlined

In addition to upgrading existing service, the nominees talked about the need to expand the national fleet and bring Amtrak to underserved areas—particularly the Sunbelt, which has seen explosive population growth since Amtrak’s network was first established in 1971.

“Last December, Amtrak initiated the procurement of new passenger railcars for our 14 overnight long-distance routes,” stated Chairman Coscia. “The new cars will replace our existing fleet with modern equipment that will improve safety, reliability, accessibility, and financial performance. This procurement, the largest U.S. order for long-distance passenger cars since the 1940s, reflects Amtrak’s commitment to our long-distance network and our recognition of how important that network is to the communities it serves. The long-distance system is the connective tissue for the National Network that provides an anchor to expand ridership.”