News & Reviews News Wire Amtrak board still lacks geographically diverse nominees

Amtrak board still lacks geographically diverse nominees

By Bob Johnston | February 12, 2024

Two U.S. Senators from rural states weigh in; no response from White House

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Locomotive on passenger train carrying blue maintenance flags during station stop
A blue flag on the locomotive of the eastbound Empire Builder indicates mechanical personnel are giving the train its mandated 1,000-mile inspection as it pauses at Havre, Mont., on Aug. 20, 2014. Montana Sen. Jon Tester, from nearby Big Sandy, is among those from outside the Northeast Corridor seeking geographical balance on Amtrak’s board of directors. Bob Johnston

WASHINGTON — After the U.S. Senate confirmed two new members for the Amtrak board of directors and reconfirmed Chairman Anthony Coscia last month, President Joe Biden has renominated a previous candidate without advancing anyone based outside the Northeast Corridor for the four remaining term-expired or vacant voting board positions.

Nominated is Delaware River and Bay Authority commissioner Samuel Lathem, a former auto worker who formerly served as president of the Delaware AFL-CIO. This came two days after New Jersey-based Coscia; Normal, Ill., Mayor Chris Koos; and Maryland resident and Republican transportation department policy official Joel Szabat were confirmed [see “Senate confirms three nominees …,” Trains News Wire, Jan. 24, 2024].

Lathem’s name was first advanced with Koos and Coscia in April 2022, along with two additional Democrats, David Capozzi from Maryland and Robin Wiessmann of the Philadelphia area; their backgrounds are described in a statement the White House released at the time.

Amtrak’s reauthorization requires residency for six of the Board’s voting-member slots to be split evenly between individuals representing Northeast Corridor, state-supported, and long-distance routes. There is no such restriction on the other remaining positions. (The board also includes non-voting positions for Amtrak’s president and the U.S. Secretary of Transportation; Szabat previously served on the board as the representative of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao from 2019 to 2021).

The 2022 slate failed to reflect that requirement, so U.S. Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and others blocked all nominations. They insisted on geographic diversity, in part to help ensure Empire Builder and Southwest Chief passengers were getting their fair share of corporate investment and attention from Amtrak management.

The Senators finally agreed to release legislative “holds” after receiving assurances in late 2023 from Biden that at least one of his original five Democrats would be replaced by someone residing outside the Northeast Corridor. But only Lathem was nominated shortly after Coscia, Koos, and Szabat were confirmed.

Though the White House press office did not respond to multiple Trains News Wire inquiries, Moran’s media representative says the Lathem nomination was expected and a nominee from outside the Northeast Corridor will be forthcoming, ”as the White House agreed and the law requires.”

People talking in railroad car with large glass window looking at track in background
Amtrak and BNSF Railway officials huddle in Amtrak’s inspection car on a special train on Jan. 10, 2013. It is passing over deteriorating Southwest Chief track in western Kansas later rehabilitated with federal grants matched by local funds. Politicians along the route have since tried to ensure the train received proper attention from Amtrak officials. Bob Johnston

Both Moran and Tester, who is up for re-election this year, say they have made Amtrak Board recommendations. In a statement to News Wire, the Montana Democrat says, “As someone who has lived in north central Montana my entire life, I know how important Amtrak and long-distance routes like the Empire Builder are to keeping our communities connected and helping rural businesses thrive. That’s why I wrote the provision in my bipartisan infrastructure law requiring western representation on the Amtrak Board, and it’s why I successfully blocked President Biden’s slate of nominees until the Administration gave me their word that they will follow the law.”

Tester, who hails from Big Sandy (on the partially abandoned former Great Northern line south of Havre to Great Falls) adds, “I’ll continue to apply pressure to make sure a qualified candidate from outside of the Northeast Corridor is seated in a timely manner, and I’ll work with anyone to make sure that long-distance routes like the Empire Builder have the resources and oversight needed to run smoothly.”

If Lathem is eventually confirmed and joins Coscia, Koos, and Szabat on the Board, there are four available positions; no more than one can be filled with a Northeast Corridor candidate. At least two of these slots are to be proposed by Republican Senate leadership.

With city offices in the Normal, Ill., station, Koos is in a unique position to observe Illinois-sponsored Lincoln Service and Texas Eagle long-distance patronage and service [see “Enhancing Amtrak’s value to rural America,” December 2023 Trains].

What’s missing is not only anyone from west of the Mississippi and south of Washington, D.C., but experienced passenger rail and hospitality operations professionals to exercise the kind of oversight both Tester and Moran seek.

2 thoughts on “Amtrak board still lacks geographically diverse nominees

  1. The world situation being what it is this problem is probably not even on POTUS’s radar. That is as it needs to be. Appears some under, under white house aide with some kind of agenda is trying to wait out the US senate.

    Time for the person responsible for nominations in the transportation sector to be called before a senator. Remember there are over maybe 4000 appointments that come from the white house.

  2. West of the Mississippi and south of Washington, D.C. is considered “flyover country” by the party in power. Thus, politically irrelevant.

    Likewise, “…experienced passenger rail and hospitality operations professionals…” are unlikely to over be appointed to Amtrak’s Board of Directors.

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