June 22, 2023 - TRA Newswire -

Three "Flyover Country" senators are not happy about the geographic makeup of the Amtrak Board of Directors and made their voices heard during a nominee hearing of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), Ranking Member Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and Jon Tester (D-Montana) called on the Biden Administration to follow the law and make sure nominees represent the entire country, not just the Northeast Corridor. Biden Democrat nominees, sans one, are all from states in the Northeast. They also called on Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) to advance a slate of nominees for the Republican board vacancies.

In his opening statement, Cruz said "the President needs to fix this legal defect by withdrawing one of the Democratic nominees from the Northeast Corridor. This slate needs to comply with the statute."

Senator Tester said he will hold up the full Senate confirmation of all Amtrak board nominees until the White House submits a balanced list of candidates that represents the entire country. Tester said "The administration put forward a list of incredibly good nominees but they did not comply with the geographic requirements."

Three nominees were up for grilling before the committee including the current Amtrak board chairman, Anthony Coscia, and the Mayor of Normal Illinois, Christopher Koos, whose city is served by the daily Texas Eagle. 

In his remarks, Mayor Koos said that "a lot of people overlook the fact that these long-distance routes help support shorter trips to a great extent." He said, "it is very important to me. These long distance systems are vital. I understand the challenges that are faced in growing these systems but look forward to working on that if I am appointed."

Senator Moran voiced concern about existing and proposed service expansion between Oklahoma City and Kansas on the Heartland Flyer. "There's a practical issue here as I try to make certain that the Southwest Chief and the potential increasing role of the Heartland Flyer is protected," according to Moran. Current Amtrak Chairman Coscia answered Moran saying he understands the important of national train service even if he lives in New Jersey. "I totally understand and recognize your very appropriate concerns", said Coscia.

The third nominee to appear before the committee was Joel Szabat, previously before the committee as a candidate for Assistant Secretary of Aviation in the U.S. Department of Transportation. Szabat, a Republican nominee, is from the Northeast.

Szabat was asked by Moran about his support for long-distance trains, to which Szabat referred to the 2019 Amtrak Inspector General report that said in order to be consistently profitable in the future, what is required is a more frequent, on-time long distance network. Szabat said "If confirmed, that would be one of the torches I would carry on the board for an improved national network and long distance service."

Responding to Vermont Senator Peter Welch, Mayor Koos discussed rail service to rural communities. Koos described two types of Mayors when he served on the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He said there are those Mayors that have Amtrak service and want more of it, and those that don't, and want it. "The demand for service is huge and it's going to be a challenge for Amtrak to step up and answer those issues," said Koos.