RPA Sounds Off on Senate Hearing Re: Amtrak Board, STB Nominee

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on Sept. 7 conducted a hearing to consider President Joe Biden’s nominees to the Amtrak Board of Directors. The nominees—David Capozzi, Anthony Coscia (renomination), Christopher Koos, Samuel E. Lathem, Robin L. Wiessman—“delivered testimony outlining their qualifications for the board and their experience with the Amtrak network,” the Rail Passengers Association (RPA) said in commentary on the hearing. The Committee also considered the renomination of Robert Primus to the Surface Transportation Board (STB), “which plays a critical role in regulating the relationship between Amtrak and Class I railroads which host Amtrak service.”

RPA published the following commentary, which includes links to the nominees’ written testimony:

“Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) focused on service restoration and seemed taken aback when Mr. Coscia wouldn’t promise that the Seattle-to-Vancouver, B.C. segment of the Amtrak Cascades would be restored by the end of September. Chair Cantwell had hard words regarding how long it has taken Amtrak to get trains back online, drawing a bright red line for the nominees: She wouldn’t support any nominee who did not commit to coming up with a workforce strategy to fully restore service, saying she will no longer accept Amtrak’s excuses for not having enough conductors, baggage handlers and maintenance crews to run its trains.

“Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) focused on the Gulf Coast Restoration project and the disagreement between Amtrak, and host railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern. Mr. Primus was unable to provide much insight on the case, which is currently before the STB. However, Mr. Coscia said, as a lawyer, he believed the legal right to access these tracks is clear. He did agree with Sen. Wicker that, if the opportunity presents itself, Amtrak should strike a deal with the host railroads to restore the train rather than press for a ruling from the STB to establish a legal precedent, even though that precedent may support future corridor expansions.

“Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Nev.) put in a word for the Long-Distance Routes (LDR), and asked if Mayor Koos would commit to increasing transparency in the cost-allocation to states for State-Supported routes. Mayor Koos replied that he would, adding that the State-Supported and LDR working in tandem are what allow the National Network to function.

“Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) expressed frustration that there were no nominees representing western states. The BIL (Bipartisan Infrastructure Law) requires that the Amtrak Board include two designated representatives from each Amtrak business line—Northeast Corridor (NEC), State-Supported, and LDR—but has no regional requirements. The Senator spoke forcefully about the importance of passenger trains to residents in western states, especially to rural Amtrak-served towns. He added that the LDR network is regularly under attack, and understanding the needs of western communities will be necessary to ensuring that Amtrak’s network isn’t dismantled by its political foes.

“Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) added to this theme, expressing disappointment in the response to his request that the nominees confirm their support for the LDRs, saying it lacked the specificity of an individual response previously provided by Mayor Koos. In response, all nominees pledged to support LDRs as an essential part of the U.S. transportation network. Mr. Coscia, in particular, called the National Network a ‘treasure’ and said the LDRs served as the ‘anchor’ to that system, providing the connective tissue on top of which Amtrak will build out future service.

“While many of the Amtrak nominees have obvious qualifications for the railroad’s board—Mr. Coscia is the current Chair of the Amtrak board; Mayor Koos is an Amtrak mayor in Normal, Ill. and Vice Chair for Passenger Rail of the U.S. Conference of Mayors; Mr. Capozzi helped draft the Americans with Disabilities Act and chaired the committee that developed the U.S. Department of Transportation’s plan for incorporating it—others have less clearly defined relationship to railroading. Mr. Lathem, a former leader with the United Auto Workers and a resident of Delaware, said his experience in vocational education and training would be an asset to Amtrak as they struggle to find the workers needed to maintain and expand its network using increased funding from BIL. Ms. Wiessmann, a former banker and State Treasurer from Pennsylvania, said her experience in accounting and financial and project management would be an asset in ensuring financial accountability and transparency in the use of BIL funds.

Key Nominee Quotes, According to RPA:

David M. Capozzi:

“I have worked to make rail transportation more accessible to individuals with disabilities for more than 35 years. I was a member of the legal team for the disability community that helped Congress craft the Americans with Disabilities Act, and testified in support of its passage before the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation. Following the ADA’s enactment, I chaired the committee formed by the Urban Mass Transit Administration, the predecessor of today’s Federal Transit Administration, which developed the Department of Transportation’s proposed rule to implement the ADA.

“Only about a quarter of the nearly 400 stations Amtrak has or shares ADA responsibility currently comply with the ADA. As part of a 2020 settlement with the Department of Justice, Amtrak made commitments to bring these stations into compliance. My understanding is that Amtrak plans to spend $900 million over the next five years to achieve that goal.

“Over the next ten years, Amtrak intends to replace or initiate procurements to replace the majority of its existing passenger equipment fleet. Since passenger railcars often have a service life of 40 years or more and cannot be easily modified, it is important that the new equipment is designed and manufactured to optimize accessibility. Again, I intend to ensure that happens.

“As a member of Amtrak’s Board, one of my areas of focus would be in providing leadership and attention in fulfilling Amtrak’s obligations under the ADA and the DOJ settlement agreement and working to secure the appropriate levels of funding for that purpose.”

Anthony R. Coscia:

“I am proud to say that since [the near-bankruptcy in the early 2000s], Amtrak, working with our partners, made significant progress… We grew ridership nationwide while significantly improving the finances of the company, despite decades of chronic underinvestment that left Amtrak saddled with old and inefficient assets and infrastructure. By the end of FY2019, Amtrak eliminated more than $300 million in annual operating losses compared to 2013 and, more important, created a pathway to investing revenue in to long-overdue capital projects.

“Our highest priority on the Northeast Corridor is to renew our centuries-old infrastructure so that we can improve reliability, capacity and trip time. Construction of the Hudson Tunnel between New Jersey and New York and replacing the 150-year-old B&P Tunnel in Baltimore typify these efforts. Across the National Network, we are focused on improving Amtrak’s Chicago Union Station, re-fleeting our long-distance trains, improving corridors and expanding service to new markets, and achieving full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act at our stations. These investments we will usher in a new era of intercity passenger rail in America.”

Christopher Koos:

“As Mayor of Normal for 19 years, I have seen firsthand the positive impact of expanding and improving Amtrak service. When I became mayor, Amtrak’s Bloomington-Normal station had fewer than 75,000 passengers a year. In 2010, Normal was awarded one of the first TIGER grants to replace its small, unattractive Amtrak station with Uptown Station, which was completed just two years later, on time and within budget, thanks to a successful partnership among all levels of government, local contractors, and unions. Its construction created hundreds of good-paying jobs, and the project received a LEED Silver certification for its environmentally responsible construction and design.

“As much as I admire Amtrak, I recognize its need for improvement. There are several things I will focus on as a member of the Board, if confirmed. One of them is long-distance service. I know how important Amtrak’s long-distance trains are to residents of Normal who lack sufficient airport access, as well as other travelers from rural communities I’ve met on the Texas Eagle, many of whom use the train for short distance trips because no other public transportation option is available. Often overlooked is the fact that long-distance trains also provide a significant portion of Amtrak’s service on many short distance corridors.

“Amtrak’s on-time-performance must be significantly improved, and freight rail companies must be held accountable for meeting agreed-upon timetables. I am also intent on making Amtrak a safer system: grade-separation and railroad right-of-way improvements that created safer conditions in Normal should be replicated in other communities Amtrak serves. And as the 42-year-long owner of two small retail businesses, I’m very focused on improving customer service.”

Samuel E. Lathem:

“I have decades of experience as a Board member of governmental and quasi-governmental entities. Since 2001, I have been a Commissioner of the Delaware River Bay Authority (DRBA), and currently serve as Vice Chair. The DRBA, a bi-state quasi-governmental corporation, operates the Delaware Memorial Bridge, three airports, and the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. I am also a former Board member of the Diamond State Port Corporation, a corporate entity of the State of Delaware that operates the Port of Wilmington.

“I know how important Amtrak is, not just to travelers but to the communities where its employees work and live throughout the country. I live in Bear, Del., where one of Amtrak’s three major equipment maintenance facilities is located. Amtrak service in rural areas is of particular interest to me. This may surprise some people, but outside of the Wilmington area, Delaware is a predominantly rural state. From my involvement in statewide organizations, I know many people who live in rural parts of Delaware who don’t have access to Amtrak or other public transportation services they want and need.

“I believe my experience in vocational education and training is particularly relevant, because one of Amtrak’s biggest challenges will be finding and training large numbers of workers to construct projects funded by last year’s Infrastructure Bill. I am interested in looking into Amtrak’s current efforts to recruit from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), something I know the Ranking Member and others on this Committee care about deeply.”

Robin L. Wiessman:

“My background as a lawyer by training over many years in finance and infrastructure investment is not unusual for a prospective board member. However, while I have considerable board experience, what makes me particularly well suited for the Amtrak Board is my unique background and experience in both the private and public sectors… I was a founding principal and president of the first women-owned investment banking firm on Wall Street, served as chairman of the board of a mutual fund, and held positions at major investment and securities firms. I have also served as State Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where I was custodian of $120 billion in public assets, and as Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Banking and Securities. Additionally, I have held appointive positions on numerous federal and state boards responsible for financial oversight, securities regulation and economic development.

“As a resident of the Philadelphia area who spent many years working on Wall Street and for Pennsylvania’s state government, I have been a frequent Amtrak passenger for many decades. However, I have also spent a lot of time working in other parts of the country where passenger rail service was negligible, and cars and sometimes planes were the only option for intercity travel. I appreciate what Amtrak service does for the Northeast, and what it could do in other regions of the country if it received adequate, assured multi-year funding that would allow it to make major investments.

“It is important that Amtrak’s Board include members with experience in these areas who can advise, oversee and support the efforts of Amtrak’s management to address the welcome challenge of receiving money to begin pursuing long sought goals while ensuring financial accountability, transparency and optimal use of public funding. I can provide that expertise.”

Robert Primus (STB):

“There are many reasons why I am seeking to serve a second term. Chief among them is my desire to continue working on the diverse portfolio of issues currently before the Agency that have broad and lasting implications for the nation’s rail network and our national economy. This includes the Board’s efforts to address the nationwide deterioration of service levels, which has negatively impacted numerous business sectors and further strained our national supply chain; and establishing formal plans, in compliance with the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, to address the on-time performance challenges that have long plagued Amtrak’s regional and long-distance routes.”

Not testifying was potential new Amtrak Board member Joel Matthew Szabat, whose intended nomination by President Biden was announced the same day. Szabat is retiring from the U.S. Department of Transportation to enter the private sector after 38 years of government service. He is currently the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Aviation & International Affairs. In 2019, Szabat was confirmed by the Senate as Assistant Secretary for Aviation & International Affairs at DOT, managing 140 bilateral air service agreements with other countries, approving or rejecting airline joint venture proposals, and running grant programs supporting 200 small community airports nationwide. Szabat also served as Acting Under Secretary for Policy and supervised the Department’s Policy and Research Offices. Szabat represented DOT on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), the White House COVID-19 Task Force, and the Amtrak Board of Directors.

Szabat “spearheaded new policies on broadband and spectrum use for drones and autonomous vehicles, and rolled out a trillion-dollar infrastructure proposal,” the White House noted. He also served as the Executive Director of the United States Maritime Administration. Before that, Szabat was the designated federal official who led DOT’s $48 billion in Recovery Act investments in 15,000 surface transportation projects. He also formerly served as the Chief of Staff of the Small Business Administration and as the Transportation Counselor in the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, overseeing $500 million to reconstruct Iraqi airports, ports, and railroads. Szabat served as the Principal Transportation Consultant in the California State Legislature. He also served as a Budget and Management Advisor at EPA, and worked at a management consultancy. Szabat received his B.A. in Economics from Georgetown University, and his M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. After college, Szabat was a cavalry officer in the U.S. Army, patrolling the East-West German border. Together with his wife, Chiling Tong, “a noted Asian Pacific American activist,” Szabat created the International Leadership Foundation “to promote the civic awareness and involvement of APA youth.”

RPA developed its own questions for the nominees to the Amtrak Board that the organization stated it “would like answered”:

  • How many times in the past decade have you been a passenger on Northeast Corridor trains? (Or, if you are a frequent passenger, please provide an estimate how many times per year you use the NEC.)
  • How many times in the past decade have you been a passenger on State-supported trains? (Or, if you are a frequent passenger, please provide an estimate how many times per month you use State-supported trains.)
  • How many times in the past decade have you been a passenger on a long-distance train? (Or, if you are a frequent passenger, please provide an estimate how many times per month you use long-distance trains.)
  • Please share with us your view on the role that Amtrak’s network plays, the role that it should play, and your vision for the future growth of passenger rail service for the U.S. as a whole. Please be specific about which states/regions you believe need more service, if any, and under which Amtrak business line these services would operate.
  • Under prior Amtrak CEOs, the railroad publicly proposed eliminating traditional dining car service. Currently, regular meal service is only offered on certain long-distance trains, and for the first time coach passengers are excluded from being able to buy a meal in the dining car. In light of the preceding: How has your history as a passenger informed your philosophy on the need for passengers to be able to obtain acceptable meals while on board? How important is it on longer journeys? How should Amtrak address the need to accommodate different kinds of passengers with different kinds of dietary needs?
  • Our Association believes that, as a publicly funded, semi-governmental entity, the Amtrak Board’s deliberations should be more transparent. The Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act (IIJA) added several reforms to the Amtrak Board of Directors, including a provision that requires the Amtrak Board to meet at least annually with representatives of Amtrak employees; representatives of persons with disabilities; and the general public, in an open meeting with a virtual attendance option, to discuss financial performance and service results (emphasis ours). In light of these recent statutory changes, please share with us your views on how the Amtrak Board of Directors should interact with the public, and how often.
  • Amtrak has just received over $22 billion in funding for capital projects as part of the IIJA, with the opportunity to apply for tens of billions more in competitive rail grants. What skills and experiences do you believe you can bring to the governance and oversight of America’s largest and most important passenger rail operator during this critical phase of its history? Please include any experience you have in the following areas:
    • Overseeing or implementing large capital or operating budgets;
    • Railroad (freight or passenger), public transit system or another travel mode;
    • Hospitality or tourism industry; and
    • Finance and corporate governance.
  • Congress amended Amtrak’s mission in the IIJA by directing Amtrak to maximize the benefits of its Federal investment, as opposed to minimizing costs. Please share your views on the balance between providing a quality passenger rail service to the nation and maximizing operational revenue.
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