Thursday, September 26, 2013

STB nominee Miller: A fresh perspective

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Any notion that Debra (Deb) Miller, President Obama's nominee to succeed Frank Mulvey at the Surface Transportation Board, is a gullible "Dorothy from Kansas" should be ditched chop-chop.

Yes, the 58-year-old Miller is a Kansas native and has questionable knowledge of railroad regulatory issues, but that's where the comparison with the Wizard of Oz character ends.

secmillerWhat Miller possesses – and which her Washington sponsor-in-chief, Health & Human Services Secretary and former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, impressed on the White House – is a transportation policy background reaching beyond Kansas borders and a proven ability to work productively with opinion leaders and decision makers of poles-apart political persuasions. Indeed, as Kansas secretary of transportation under a liberal Sebelius, Miller was the only Sebelius cabinet member retained by current Gov. Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican and former U.S. senator.

OK,, with a bachelor's degree in sociology from Kansas State University, Miller doesn't match, for the job, Mulvey's Ph.D in economics, his background advising House Democrats on rail freight and passenger issues, his post as a DOT deputy assistant inspector general for rail programs, and having been a high level economist studying transportation competition at the General Accountability Office.

Miller, however, offers a fresh-slate perspective – seeming not to possess preconceived positions on railroad economic regulation -- which could defang some Democrats supporting reregulation. She earned high praise while holding leadership posts within the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), served as chairperson of the National Academy of Science's Transportation Research Board, has been vocal in support of rail short line expansion, and knows first-hand that intermodal means joint rail-highway transportation through her public-private partnership support for a new BNSF intermodal terminal in Kansas.

Miller, if confirmed by the Senate, would be the 112th member of the Surface Transportation Board (nee Interstate Commerce Commission) since its creation in 1887, and the second Kansas native to hold a seat on the now-three member agency, which includes fellow Democrat and Chairman Dan Elliott and Republican Ann Begeman.

Miller, who left KDOT in January 2012 to join transportation planning and policy consultancy Cambridge Systematics (which, in 2007, performed a capacity study for the Association of American Railroads and which has other railroad clients), was the longest-serving Kansas secretary of transportation and the first woman to hold that position.

She was appointed to the KDOT post in 2003 by Sebelius, retained it when Democrat Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson succeeded Sebelius (when Sebelius joined the Obama cabinet) and was reappointed by Republican Brownback in 2011 when he was elected governor. KDOT employs 3,100 people and has an annual budget exceeding $1 billion. Among Miller's accomplishments was shepherding through the cash-strapped Kansas legislature a 10-year, $8 billion state transportation program aimed at creating jobs, preserving highway infrastructure, and providing multimodal economic development opportunities.

Prior to her KDOT appointment, Miller was chief planner at a national architecture, engineering and planning firm providing transportation planning and public communication assistance to state DOTs and municipalities, and was director of KDOT's Division of Planning and Development, special assistant to a previous state transportation secretary, and a policy assistant to Gov. Sebelius.

In an AASHTO leadership position, Miller testified before Congress that in planning congestion-relieving transportation projects, "it is essential to find ways to deliver a better product faster, cheaper and with better environmental results. We need more tools and ideas to stretch our precious resources and to enable us to deliver the best possible value to our customers for their transportation investments," stressing planning creativity.

As KDOT secretary, she said that "solving our rural capacity challenges must also include non-highway modes, including aviation, public transit and rail." Kansas, she said, "must have a strong rail link to regional and national markets. When you consider that each carload can haul an amount equal to three or four truckloads, you understand that railroads also save our highways a tremendous amount of wear and tear, and that alone is worth hundreds of millions of dollars."

In 2010, Miller advanced a $35 million grant to BNSF, from the state's rail assistance program, to help fund a new 443-acre intermodal facility for BNSF southwest of Kansas City. It leveraged a multi-year $2 billion BNSF investment to expand line capacity connecting Chicago with the Southwest.

In 2009, Miller directed $3 million in federal economic recovery funding for Kansas short line railroad development, observing that Kansas short lines account for 41 percent of the state's 4,780 track miles (the majority of track is operated by BNSF and Union Pacific).

Miller, while never directly involved with STB actions, unsuccessfully nominated a Kansas grain executive to the STB's Railroad-Shipper Transportation Advisory Council, noting that Charles Elsea's Scoular Grain Company "understands the importance of reliable and efficient freight rail transportation [and] depends on the U.S. railway system to efficiently transport its products, relying heavily on both covered hopper cars and intermodal containers." In 2005, Elsea testified before the STB, on behalf of the Transportation Elevators Grain Merchants Association: "By forcing rates lower or forcing inefficient operating practices, reregulation could restrict earnings, which would severely limit the railroads' ability to invest in infrastructure."

A railroad official, who worked with Miller at KDOT and who asked his name not be used, says Miller "is very bright, educable, and insightful."

A rail shipper attorney, also requesting anonymity, said, "She seems like someone who has actually run something and made decisions and executed them. That's not true of most recent STB members. She may have this odd idea that staff works for her, and not vice versa. And if she knows enough not to take the railroads, and Washington, at face value, then she could have lots of potential."

Another attorney, representing so-called captive shippers, and also asking not to be named, said, "Given her lack of involvement in economic regulation of railroads, we are concerned that she will see the issues as one-sided, i.e., that the important thing is to expand capacity, and to do that, additional investment is needed, and that would, in turn, justify continuation of STB regulatory policies favoring the railroads. She fits the mold of many STB appointees who might know something about transportation, but not of economic regulation. Why administrations nominate people to the STB who don't have a background in what it does is a mystery," said the shipper attorney. Not since 1955 (Rupert Murphy) has someone with a rail shipper background been named to the ICC/STB.)

Former Kansas Republican Gov. Bill Graves, who preceded Sebelius and is now president of American Trucking Associations, said in an email, "Deb Miller did a wonderful job as secretary of KDOT and was a valuable member of the KDOT team while I was governor. President Obama has made a great selection and I look forward to once again working with Deb. She is a consummate transportation professional."

Miller, who declined to comment for this article, is married for nine years to a former Kansas newspaper reporter, Jim McLean, now working in healthcare public relations. In a phone call, he said he first met Miller while writing on state politics and immediately spotted "the respect [for her] of people on both sides of the aisle. She is a policy person."

Miller, if confirmed, would be the second Kansan to hold an ICC/STB seat. In 1967, Democrat Lyndon Johnson nominated Republican George Stafford to the ICC and named him its first permanent chairman upon confirmation. Stafford had been assistant director of the Kansas Sales Tax Division, executive director of the Kansas Republican Committee and an aide to Republican Gov Frank Carlson, who, subsequently as a U.S. senator, recommended the Stafford nomination to Johnson. Stafford had no transportation experience and initially declined the nomination.

Stafford's nomination is one of ICC/STB legend. He said that while serving as an aide to Sen. Carlson and working a telephone bank raising money for Republican candidates, he received a call from the White House to meet with President Johnson, and responded he was not interested in meeting with Johnson.

Carlson later said that after he had gone to bed, his home telephone rang and Mrs. Carlson told him one of his "drunk friends" was on the line pretending to be the president. Carlson picked up the phone to hear Johnson say, "I'm not drunk and I am Lyndon Johnson." The next morning, Carlson insisted Stafford make the trip to the White House.

Stafford said he told the president, "I haven't the slightest idea what the job was about. All I knew about the ICC is that when there were rail car shortages during harvest time in Kansas, I called the ICC for assistance. Well, the president said all he wanted me to do as an ICC commissioner was to give speeches, identify problems and fix them. I took the job. Stafford served on the ICC for 13 years, although President Carter replaced him as chairman in 1977 with Democrat Dan O'Neal of Washington state.

dmiller 1986As another aside, Miller’s 1986 photo (at left) bears a striking resemblance to former ICC/STB Chairman Linda Morgan (at right).Linda Morgan 2002

A date has yet to be set for Miller's confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, which is chaired by Democrat Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, a vocal advocate of railroad reregulation. The Commerce Committee must first approve the nomination of Miller before it moves to the Senate floor for a final vote.

Mulvey, whose term expired in December 2012, is allowed by statute to remain in office only 12 months beyond his term expiration, meaning he must depart no later than Dec. 31.

Chairman Elliott’s first term expires Dec. 31. His background is in rail labor. He is awaiting word on his renomination. Begeman’s term expires Dec. 31, 2015. She is a former long-time aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Frank N. Wilner

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.