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Tester says he and Biden progressing on Amtrak board diversity

'Who wants to flip a coin?'

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.,  wants the Amtrak board to have more geographic diversity.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., wants the Amtrak board to have more geographic diversity. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Corrected June 23 | Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said that he and the Biden administration are working toward a resolution to ensure the Amtrak board of directors is geographically representative of the U.S., but he gave no indication what the resolution could be. 

Tester made his comment Wednesday at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing with three of President Joe Biden’s six nominees for the Amtrak board. Tester and a handful of Republicans have vowed to block the nominees unless the administration complied with a legal requirement that no more than four be from states on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

Five of the six nominees hail from states within the corridor: Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island or the District of Columbia. Three of them — Joel Matthew Szabat, Anthony Rosario Coscia and Christopher Koos — testified Wednesday. Koos, from Illinois, is the only nominee from outside of the corridor. Rosario is from New Jersey and Szabat is from Maryland. 

“I don’t know — who wants to flip a coin?” joked Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., referring to the administration’s potential withdrawal of one of the six nominees. 

Although Tester seemed confident about a solution, the panel’s ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and other Republicans also cited concerns with Amtrak’s focus on the East Coast and ability to use taxpayer dollars effectively.

“Amtrak operates in 37 other states, including Texas, through its national network of long-distance and state supported routes,” Cruz said. “The Americans who reside outside of the Northeast Corridor whose taxes generously support Amtrak’s operations must have their interests fairly represented.”

Tester and Cruz both sent letters to the administration in April promising to oppose the six nominees until Biden complied with a 2021 infrastructure law provision limiting Northeast Corridor representation. Moran signed the Cruz letter.

Szabat, the only Republican among the six candidates, was nominated by former President Donald Trump to be the Transportation Department’s assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs in 2018 and to be undersecretary of transportation for policy in 2020. The Senate confirmed him as assistant secretary in early 2019, but didn’t hold a floor vote on the second nomination.

Republicans say Szabat shouldn’t be withdrawn because he’s the only Republican.

Coscia is the chair of Amtrak’s board of directors and has been a member of the panel since 2010. Koos is the mayor of Normal, Illinois, a position he has held for 20 years. 

The committee has yet to schedule a hearing for the other three nominees — David Michael Capozzi, Samuel E. Lathem and Robin Lee Wiessmann — who are from Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania, respectively. The three nominees, along with Coscia and Koos, testified at a hearing in September.

Tester, who acknowledged the nominees are qualified, said he also opposed the nominees in the 117th Congress because of the geographic balance issue.

Cruz pressed the three nominees Wednesday on priorities for long-distance rail outside of the Northeast Corridor and methods for ensuring taxpayer dollars are well spent. He highlighted Amtrak’s $30 billion Gateway Hudson Tunnel Project aimed at easing congestion between New York and New Jersey. 

“Given the 2021 infrastructure law has already made tens of millions of dollars available for Gateway and other Northeast Corridor programs, it is important to know that Amtrak can complete major capital projects in a timely and cost effective manner,” Cruz said. 

Coscia, the current board chair, said that Amtrak’s priority is to prove it can handle large projects like Gateway and added it is seeking discretionary grants to improve and expand service in states such as Tennessee, Minnesota, Idaho, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Colorado and Arizona, among others.

This report was corrected to reflect that Szabat was confirmed once by the Senate.

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