117th Congress Leaves Amtrak Board Nominees in Limbo
December 7, 2022
Washington, D.C.—The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held an executive session today to consider Biden Administration nominees to the Amtrak Board of Directors, as well as the renomination of Robert Primus to the Surface Transportation Board.
By Sean Jeans-Gail
Washington, D.C.—The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held an executive session today to consider five Biden Administration nominees to the Amtrak Board of Directors, as well as the renomination of Robert Primus to the Surface Transportation Board. And while there was broad support among the Committee for the nominees, based on written and oral commitments by the nominees to support a long-distance network, there doesn't appear to be enough time left on the calendar to get the nominees across the finish line this Congress.
The Democratic nominees to the Amtrak board include Tony Coscia (a renomination to the position of Director), David Capozzi, Mayor Christopher Koos, Samuel Lathem, and Robin Wiessmann.
By law, Amtrak’s Board consists of ten members:
- The Secretary of Transportation,
- The President of Amtrak, who serves as a nonvoting member of the Board, and
- 8 individuals appointed by the President of the United States, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, with general business and financial experience, experience or qualifications in transportation, freight and passenger rail transportation, travel, hospitality, cruise line, or passenger air transportation businesses, or representatives of employees or users of passenger rail transportation or a State government.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) of 2021 introduced a requirement that the Amtrak Board feature representation from across the entire network; two seats reserved for people representing Northeast Corridor (NEC) states, two seats for people from states featureing long-distance routes, and two from states with State-supported routes).
Finally, at least three of the seats are designated as Republican and three as Democratic.
[Read more of our coverage of these Amtrak Board nominees here.]
Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Chair of the Committee, opened the hearing by discussing the importance of the long-distance services to Washington State and Oregon, noting that all five nominees committed to her in writing to continue and enhance the National Network.
Chair Cantwell also mentioned a challenge she issued to Amtrak during the nomination hearing: to accelerate hiring so that the railroad could restore service to pre-pandemic levels. She applauded Amtrak for its recent hiring spree—404 new employees in October, up 33% from last year’s monthly hiring average—and noted that a crew has been secured to restore one of the Cascade frequencies to Vancouver, B.C. Senator Cantwell emphasized that more still needs to be done, and that she had received commitments from all five nominees to hold Amtrak accountable for executing its service development and hiring plan.
Ranking Member Wicker also said he would support sending all five of the Democratic Amtrak nominees to the Senate floor. However, he also stated that he will withhold his support for confirmation by the full Senate until there are nominees for the Republican seats on the Amtrak board. With only three weeks left in the 117th Congress, that means the Biden Administration will have to renominate all five of their Amtrak Board appointees in the new year—along with three Republican nominees that meet the approval of Senate Republicans.
Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) also underscored the need for Amtrak to serve all its customers effectively, including those that rely on the National Network. He noted that, contrary to the spirit of requirements included in the BIL—which Rail Passengers fought to include—the current slate of nominees were largely from states in the Northeast, and that this could potentially impair their ability to understand the needs of National Network passengers.
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) finished the hearing by stating that he will also support the advancement of the Amtrak board nominees, but that his work with these individuals on the preservation of long-distance routes was ‘just beginning.’
“I will hold them to their words of support expressed in their confirmation hearing,” said Sen. Moran. “In this nation, it is important for support of passenger rail routes in regions like the Northeast Corridor. But it is equally important for the rural transportation alternatives to be maintained and enhanced. In Kansas we benefit currently from the Southwest Chief, and we continue to look to benefit further from the Heartland Flyer. For thousands of Kansans who live along these routes it’s a very long drive, and the SW chief represents an important link for them to the rest of the country, and for bringing visitors from outside our state to contribute to the economic well-being of our state. I’m committed to ensuring the preservation of our nation’s long-distance passenger rail service, and I look forward to the work ahead with each of the nominees, based on their commitment to me and to this Committee.”
"It is an honor to be recognized by the Rail Passengers Association for my efforts to strengthen and expand America’s passenger rail. Golden spikes were once used by railroads to mark the completion of important rail projects, so I am truly grateful to receive the Golden Spike Award as a way to mark the end of a career that I’ve spent fighting to invest in our country’s rail system. As Chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, it has been my priority to bolster funding for Amtrak, increase and expand routes, look to the future by supporting high-speed projects, and improve safety, culminating in $66 billion in new funding in the Bipartisan infrastructure Law."
Representative Peter DeFazio (OR-04)
March 30, 2022, on receiving the Association's Golden Spike Award for his years of dedication and commitment to passenger rail.