June 18, 2023 - TRA Editorial - 

U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, will convene a full committee nomination hearing this coming Wednesday, June 21 at 10:00 a.m. ET to consider nominations for the Amtrak Board of Directors.  

Except for one midwestern Mayor nominated to the Amtrak Board of Directors, all of the potential list of new names or retreads are only from Northeastern states. The list includes current Chairman Anthony Coscia of New Jersey, who has already served in that position for ten years and who we feel needs to be replaced with new blood.

In the Infrastructure Law passed in 2021, Congress mandated that at least half of the eight appointed Amtrak board directors live outside of the Northeast Corridor. The Northeast Corridor refers to Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. The slate currently presented will not pass the sniff test. 

Petitions that are being circulated online will be sent to Commerce Committee members to bring the slate of Amtrak board nominees into compliance with the geographic makeup mandated in federal law. Once such petition, spearheaded by James Tilley, President of the Florida Coalition of Rail Passengers, can be found here.

Outside of the Northeast Corridor, the lone board nomination from flyover country is Normal, Illinois Mayor Chris Coos. Coos has been a longtime Amtrak supporter, was responsible for spearheading a downtown makeover that included a new Bloomington-Normal Illinois multi-modal station and hosted the grass-roots Texas Eagle Marketing and Performance Organization to promote long-distance service.

The imbalance of the board has attracted the attention of U.S. Senate Commerce Committee Ranking Member Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Republican committee members who wrote to President Biden and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, saying that the administration is improperly favoring Northeastern states over the rest of the country.

President Biden has resubmitted five nominees and all from states in the Northeast Corridor.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

In their letter, Cruz and fellow lawmakers wrote "Under federal law, no more than five of the Amtrak board members appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate may be members of the same political party. All of your Amtrak board nominees are Democrats, except for former Assistant Secretary of Transportation Joel Szabat, who is a Republican from Maryland. Given the statutory requirement for political diversity on Amtrak’s Board of Directors, Mr. Szabat’s nomination should not be withdrawn."

“In our view, the Senate Commerce Committee should not take action on any of your Democrat Amtrak nominees until you have brought your slate of nominees into compliance with federal law by withdrawing one of the Democrat nominees from the Northeast Corridor. Thank you for your attention to this important matter.”

The letter pointed out that the lack of geographic diversity among your Amtrak board nominees has not gone unnoticed in Congress and the rail passenger community. Last September, Senator John Tester (D-Montana) stated at a  nomination hearing that he was “more than just a little bit frustrated that none of the Amtrak board nominees were from any of the Western states.” Similarly, the Rail Passenger Association, which acts as a voice for Amtrak and other rail passengers, has criticized the White House for selecting so many Amtrak board nominees from the Northeast Corridor.

Signers of the letter include: Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Todd Young (R-Ind.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), JD Vance (R-Ohio), and Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.). 

Photo credit:  Ted Cruz, Politico / John Tester, Montana Public Radio / Amtrak Guide