Thursday, April 20, 2017

FRA’s new chief: Check ego at the door

Written by 
FRA’s new chief: Check ego at the door

Ah, to be a public servant fulfilling the boast of Caesar Augustus: “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.” For the incoming Federal Railroad Administrator, it is best to check ego at the door and accept the pithy guidance of Charles Dickens:

Oh let us love our occupations

Bless the squire and [her] relations

Live upon our daily rations

And always know our proper stations

 

 

 

Consider the “squire” as Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, and “her relations” as Deputy Secretary Jeff Rosen and other DOT senior staff who edit the Administrator's speeches and congressional testimony.

“Daily rations” are what remain after the politically more favored Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration harvest their share of the federal largesse. It is airport and highway congestion, and commuter trains running late, or not at all-preventing voters from going to work or returning home-that command media attention and set DOT priorities.

As for “proper stations,” it's learning to live as the second banana in the federal hierarchy, which can be emotionally traumatic for one long removed from the lower ranks.

Indeed, wrongly dare to carry into office a personal agenda and you'll soon hear the Washington version of Gabriel's horn, conspicuously announcing your unceremonious departure. The Administrator's function is to read, mark, inwardly digest and propagate President Trump's agenda as understood by the Transportation Secretary.

What Allan Rutter, who served as President George W. Bush's FRA Administrator, labels a valuable asset is “professional bureaucrat training,” acquired, he said, from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, and as Texas Transportation Director under Gov. Bush.

“Figuring out how to get [proposed policies and programs, and new safety rules] through the Washington process” is a challenge quite alien to those who spent a career in the private sector, says Joseph Boardman, Administrator also under George W. Bush, and previously New York State's longest serving Transportation Commissioner.

For a new Administrator, a deputy steeped in the ways of Washington's inscrutable bureaucracy is the Excalibur of office, to be selected astutely and trusted unreservedly. “If you don't, you will waste too much time getting anything done,” Boardman says.

As author Lewis Carroll warned of avoiding the Jabberwock, Jubjub bird and Bandersnatch, the Administrator should beware of the lobbyist. Acting Administrator Betty Monro found herself on the pages of The New York Times and into retirement in 2004 after allegations of excessive chumminess. Administrator Joe Szabo resigned in 2015 amidst allegations of pushing a union agenda to require minimum train-crew size absent evidence of safety benefits.

Confidence in, and respect for, career staff and their institutional knowledge is essential. Former FRA Administrators say “always expect” a major rail accident-and prepare by rehearsing what will be said and done in collaboration with career staff. Staff expertise also is essential in separating engineering science from politics in managing the timetable for installation of Positive Train Control and assessing the benefits of electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes, and in refereeing the debate over the effectiveness of fines vs. non-punitive alternatives in assuring a world-class safety culture.

As for Amtrak, while the FRA Administrator manages the annual appropriation and Amtrak compliance with other congressional directives, the Transportation Secretary is, by law, an Amtrak board member. While Administrators typically are assigned that role, Rosen exercised it while DOT General Counsel-and may do so again as Chao's deputy. “The FRA Administrator should be the representative,” says Boardman, who also was Amtrak's President, because the agency's career staff understands Amtrak, high-speed rail, state partnerships and the problems associated with passenger trains on freight railroad tracks “better than anyone else.”

Among those who held the post previously, there is agreement that a new Administrator enter office with “reasonable” expectations of what can be accomplished in the time there, and seek out predecessors for guidance. Above all, be perpetually in alignment with the Transportation Secretary. In the Trump Administration, that means boning up on benefit/cost ratios and public-private partnerships.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frank N. Wilner, Contributing Editor

Frank N. Wilner is author of six books, including, Amtrak: Past, Present, Future; Understanding the Railway Labor Act; and, Railroad Mergers: History, Analysis, Insight. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in economics and labor relations from Virginia Tech. He has been assistant vice president, policy, for the Association of American Railroads; a White House appointed chief of staff at the Surface Transportation Board; and director of public relations for the United Transportation Union. He is a past president of the Association of Transportation Law Professionals. Wilner drafted the railroad section of the Heritage Foundation’s Mandate for Change (Volumes I and II), which were policy blueprints for the two Reagan Administrations; and was a guest columnist for the Cato Institute’s Regulation magazine.

Get the latest rail news

Rail news and analysis from Railway Age, IRJ and RT&S by email