Third in a Series: Advocates Uncertain as Politics Comes Into Focus

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
image description

My two previous reports in this series showed that companies and a union who could benefit directly from various DOT grants made highly favorable statements about Pete Buttigieg. That means little on its face, because the statements came from entities who could say little else. Advocates for the riders on Amtrak and transit are not bound by that constraint, and they have endured other DOT heads who have not been particularly favorable to the riders who are their constituents. I will conclude this series by reporting some comments from those advocates, examining Buttigieg’s political future, and proffering some suggestions about how he can help the riders (assuming that the Senate confirms his nomination).

Advocates for riders in Indiana and elsewhere expressed hope that Buttigieg could help their constituents in his anticipated role, along with concern that there is little he will actually do to help. 

Richard Rudolph, Chair of the Rail Users’ Network (RUN) congratulated Buttigieg on his appointment, but questioned whether he was the best person for the job. Rudolph told me that he would have preferred a member of Congress who showed interest in expanding the nation’s passenger train and transit networks. He would have recommended Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, who “has been promoting passenger railroading for years” or Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who has been pushing for new routes to Rockford and Moline. Rudolph complained: “They haven’t gotten past the feasibility study stage, because the politicians haven’t stepped up to the plate. Passenger trains do more than just provide a means of travel; they also promote private investment and the economies of the communities they serve.” Rudolph hopes that Buttigieg will use his office to promote more passenger trains with arguments like that, and also encourage state and local officials to do the same.

Philip L. Streby is one of the nation’s busiest advocates, as the only member of the Boards of both RUN and the Rail Passengers’ Association (RPA). He is also on the Board of Indiana Passenger Rail Alliance (IPRA) and holds a political view different from that held by most other advocates. “As a conservative, I will wait to see,” he said. “Having witnessed the cuts during the Carter Administration, I don’t expect much from any of the ‘elected’ officials, on either side. One side says passenger trains are supposed to earn their own way, the other side says little else. Only a handful seem to understand the issue at all.”

IPRA President Steven Coxhead, who lives in a community along the South Shore Line, is also taking a wait-and-see attitude. “I don’t really know much about how Buttigieg stands personally,” he said. “However, from what I do know of him, I would expect that he will competently and energetically carry out the policies set by President Biden.” Coxhead also expressed concern about the next Congress; a concern probably shared by many passenger rail advocates: “And even more important … is the makeup of the next Congress, particularly the Senate. With a Democratic Senate (split 50/50 for the first time in roughly 20 years, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaking vote), the Biden Administration will have a fighting chance of getting done some of what it considers important.” 

It now seems reasonable to conjecture that Congress will vote to keep Amtrak going to some extent, but how much they would authorize for Amtrak and also for keeping local transit going is anybody’s guess. 

The Ultimate Question

So why, with strongly pro-rail members of Congress and other officials, did Biden pick Buttigieg, who did not mention riding on Amtrak since his college days, and who has presided over a city with a weak transit system and poor connections to the trains that serve it?

As with many such appointments, the answer lies in politics. Biden is committed to diversity among the members of his team, and Buttigieg certainly adds diversity to a prospective cabinet. He polled well in the primaries last spring, before it became clear that Biden would win, and he was among the first to endorse Biden when he noticed which way the political winds were blowing. That alone would have brought him into consideration for an Administration post. 

There is more to the story, though. Buttigieg was mayor of a medium-sized city in northern Indiana that has seen better days. South Bend’s old industrial base is gone, although Notre Dame University and its football stadium now anchor the town and serve as a point of local pride. Despite his local political success, there is nowhere Buttigieg can go in Indiana politics. Indiana has become a deep-red Republican state lately. The GOP dominates state-level politics, and seven of the state’s nine House districts are strongly Republican. The only exceptions are in Indianapolis and the northwest corner of the state near Chicago, which includes communities like Hammond and Gary. Even Buttigieg’s home district has a sizable Republican registration advantage, so it is highly unlikely that he could be elected to the House. 

There are few Democrats in Indiana’s legislature, as well; only 10 senators to 40 Republicans, and only 33 members of the House of Representatives, to 67 Republicans in the past session. So Buttigieg clearly does not have an avenue of advancement in Indiana politics. The only way for him to move beyond the city limits of South Bend is to take a post in the Biden Administration. We may hear more from him in the future, but without the DOT post or a comparable appointed position, that would not happen. I could speculate on some other post that he could have occupied instead, but that would lie far beyond my rail-oriented purview.

Still, the question remains about why Buttigieg was given the transportation portfolio, rather than another job. Whether Amtrak and transit riders and their advocates like it or not, USDOT has become a minor cabinet post. Sometimes, as in the case of Ray LaHood or Norman Mineta, it went to a member of the other party. 

Beyond “shoveling money out the door” as New York advocate Joseph M. Clift put it, the Secretary does not seem to do much. During the Obama-Biden Administration, Amtrak and rail transit did not seem to fare much differently than under the Bush or Trump Administrations, at least until the COVID-19 virus ravaged the nation and the world. The action seems to have shifted to the states, and it will probably stay there until a strong champion for Amtrak, rail transit and riders comes onto the scene. Could that be Pete Buttigieg? Maybe, but it’s too early to tell.

There Are Things Pete Can Do

Near the end of his acceptance speech, Buttigieg noted, “I learned something about some of the limits that exist in this country about who is allowed to belong. But just as important, I saw how those limits could be challenged.” In so noting, he referred to a time when he was 17 and saw a news story about the problems faced by gay person who had difficulty attaining the post to which he was appointed. In the highly likely event that the Senate confirms him, he will make history as the first openly gay Cabinet Secretary. 

Still, some advocates for the non-motorists who depend on Amtrak and local transit claim that they and other similarly situated persons are also limited in their opportunities to belong, especially in light of the severe cuts to Amtrak and local transit that have taken place since the COVID-19 virus hit the nation last year, with more severe service reductions looming for transit in many places.

What can Buttigieg do to foster inclusion for transit riders, especially those of us who depend on transit for all of our mobility? As Indiana’s advocates from both sides of the political spectrum seem to agree, we can’t be sure about anything yet, except that we hope for the best, without necessarily expecting it.

That said, there are areas where a Secretary of Transportation can make a difference for Amtrak, local transit and riders, even if all he can do is call for a set of legislative priorities for Amtrak and the nation’s transit, whether or not Congress is willing to enact them.

The first place that the new Secretary can make a difference is with Amtrak. The U.S. Department of Transportation owns all of the preferred shares in Amtrak, which are the voting shares. In effect, USDOT owns Amtrak. Despite the unusual political structure of the Amtrak Board and management, Buttigieg holds the position as Amtrak’s legal “owner.” He could:

• Mandate that Amtrak take all necessary steps to restore the long-distance trains that were cut to tri-weekly schedules this past October to daily operation. 

• Mandate that Amtrak establish accounting practices that comport with Generally-Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), so everyone concerned will be able to understand Amtrak’s financial performance and the performance of each sector and route in the Amtrak system. 

• Require a level of transparency in the conduct of Amtrak’s affairs, in his fiduciary capacity and for the benefit of Amtrak’s riders and the nation’s taxpayers. 

While Amtrak managers like Bill Flynn and Stephen Gardner may not agree with such policies, they would have no practical choice but to go along. Some Republicans in Congress might be so impressed by those reforms and pro-rider policies that they might be willing to bring Amtrak’s funding up to a reasonable level. I will have more to say about that in my series, Farewell, Long-Distance Trains?

On the transit side, riders do not need expensive projects as much as they need trains and buses to take them where they want to go, when they want. There was federal operating support for transit in the 1970s, but the Reagan Administration killed it. It has come back to some extent in the legislation enacted in response to the country’s economic woes caused by the virus and the shutdowns that have occurred because of it, but this aid is designed to be a temporary stopgap. State and local governments have been keeping the nation’s transit going, but this has become increasingly difficult since the virus came and caused transit ridership and revenue to plummet. A Transportation Secretary who will strongly defend transit and push hard for federal operating support can make a huge difference to whether our transit will grow and strengthen, or weaken. 

A Secretary’s appointments to sub-agencies matter, too, especially at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Some FRA heads “knew the railroad”; many did not. Joe Szabo, from the earlier part of the Obama-Biden Administration, started on train crews in Chicago and came up the ladder through labor. Ron Batory spent 44 years in railroad operations and management. Aside from them, almost no one who held the position was familiar with railroading, its traditions and its capabilities. Buttigieg does not know about railroad fundamentals, but he can appoint someone who does, and who will use the power of the FRA to continue promoting safety, demonstrate strong governmental support for an improved Amtrak and its riders, and foster cooperation between Amtrak and its host railroads.

The FTA has an even spottier record of being led by administrators who were familiar with transit and what riders must endure today. There are elected officials and transit managers out there who are familiar with the various transit modes, and what rail transit can do for riders and the communities it serves. Buttigieg could appoint an FTA Administrator who knows about more than just giving grants, one who is capable of exercising judgment about how scarce federal dollars can be spent in a way that benefits transit riders and their communities most effectively.

Most important, Buttigieg and his appointees must be ready, willing and able to promote reform at Amtrak, expansion of the nation’s passenger train network (whether through Amtrak or through the private sector with government investment), transit as part of a program to expand mobility for non-motorists as well as motorists, and the benefits of good transit for the communities it serves. 

One person whose name had been mentioned as a possible Secretary of Transportation is Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Like his predecessor, Antonio Villaregosa, Garcetti has been a national leader in the effort to build and operate more urban transit. Even in the midst of the worst crisis that transit in this country has ever faced, the City of Angels is building several local rail transit lines and improving Union Station for Metrolink trains and California’s Amtrak corridors. He is not unique, but the FTA and the nation’s transit riders can benefit more from the leadership of a transit visionary than from the leadership of another bureaucrat who sees his or her job primarily as issuing grants.

Does Pete Buttigieg have what it takes to perform as such a leader, especially with non-automobile transportation under siege? Could he begin to level the imbalance between the highways that take the cake, and Amtrak and transit, who must fight for the crumbs? He represents a younger generation more in tune with sustainability and less in love with automobiles than previous generations. Perhaps, in that capacity, he can introduce a new attitude to transportation planning and modal balance. If he can do that, through his appointments and his policy pronouncements, he will have done a vital public service.The title of this three-part series is not a typical headline, but a question: DOTSEC Pete, Amtrak and Rail Transit: Perfect Together?. This is a question to which nobody knows the answer. Pete gained his “urbanist” credentials with a “complete streets” policy in South Bend. Still, that city’s bus system is weak and rail transit is relegated to locations far from the downtown area. Can he rise to the occasion and push hard for an improved Amtrak, more rail transit and better transit generally, even though these improvements will cost money, and the country’s economy is in trouble? 

David Peter Alan is one of America’s most experienced transit users and advocates, having ridden every rail transit line in the U.S., and most Canadian systems. He has also ridden the entire Amtrak network and most of the routes on VIA Rail. His advocacy on the national scene focuses on the Rail Users’ Network (RUN), where he has been a Board member since 2005. Locally in New Jersey, he served as Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition for 21 years, and remains a member. He is also a member of NJ Transit’s Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC). When not writing or traveling, he practices law in the fields of Intellectual Property (Patents, Trademarks and Copyright) and business law. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Categories: Commuter/Regional, High Performance, Intercity, Light Rail, News, Passenger, Rapid Transit, Regulatory, Safety Tags: , ,