U.S., Amtrak: The sadness of President Joe Biden’s Amtrak Board of Directors nominees; it’s time to go in a different direction for those who want a national system

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; May 2, 2022

Just about everyone knows the old saying, “be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it.”

Late last week that became a horrible reality when The White House released its long-delayed list of five nominees to the Amtrak Board of Directors. There are three nominees yet to be named, but, if all five are confirmed through United States Senate hearings and a vote then there will be a legal quorum for the board to function while (if ever) the other three potential nominees work their way through the legislative system.

When Amtrak was recently reauthorized by Congress there were specific guardrails put in place to assure the newly-reconstituted Amtrak board broadly represented the country. Briefly, the requirements are for a total of eight appointees:

• Two residing in or near the Northeast Corridor

• Four residing in or near regions outside the Northeast Corridor, of which:
– Two residing in states served by a long distance route.
– Two residing in states served by a state-supported route
An individual residing in a state served by a state-supported route and a long distance route may be appointed to either above position

• Two residing in any Amtrak-served location

• Each appointee may only fill one geographic allocation

• At least one appointee shall have a disability as defined by the Americans With Disabilities Act.

• No more than five from the same political party.

49 USC 24302: Board of directors

Historically, nominees are recommended by both major political parties in Congress so there is always a political balance on the board. From that perspective the system has worked well, often creating an interesting and good mix of Democrats and Republicans.

Also worth repeating, all of the current members of the Amtrak Board of Directors are serving beyond their expired terms and will continue to serve until replacements are confirmed by the Senate. An interesting note is the board math involved here.

Of the current board members, Pete Buttigieg, the Secretary of Transportation remains, and Anthony Coscia, the current Chairman of the Board is one of the new nominees. That means with the four remaining nominees (other than Mr. Coscia), if all are confirmed they will displace four of the five term-expired sitting board members. Which means one term-expired member will remain until additional nominations are made and approved.

When Joe Biden became the Democratic nominee for president and subsequently the new resident of The White House, Amtrak True Believers and Near Believers were giddy with excitement.

Finally! Someone in The White House who knows how to ride a train and likes Amtrak! Finally! A president who will not only support Amtrak, but push for its expansion! Finally! Passenger train equity! A president who has a train station named for him in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware!

Oops. While the president had the adoring nickname of Amtrak Joe, as almost always happens when a candidate gets into office in The White House the reality of pressing business from every direction – as usual – overshadows any fondness for Amtrak. And, also, as usual, Amtrak concerns are farmed out to the Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration. Amtrak Joe only remains an admiring nickname, not a harbinger of action for Amtrak.

The most disappointing nominee is the renomination of Chairman Anthony Coscia, who has already served 12 years on the board. He may well be the longest-serving member of the board. If reconfirmed, he will almost guarantee little, if any, changes will come to Amtrak since the emphasis on the Amtrak Connects US initiative will continue unabated and most likely little attention will be paid to the long distance/inter-regional national system trains.

The same poor planning, possible intentional financial sabotage with non-daily trains, some trains not be operated, too short consists and an utter failure to provide sustainable food to all passengers possibly will become long-term company policy.

It was under Mr. Coscia’s watch that Stephen Gardner was elevated in the company and ultimately named President and CEO. With Mr. Coscia reconfirmed, Stephen Gardner’s plans and programs will go forward without difficulty.

Mr. Coscia is an important figure in his home state of New Jersey and his protectionist attitudes towards the Northeast Corridor are demonstrated on a daily basis. The truism of the NEC – Nothing Else Counts – will be the watchword of the Biden presidency regarding Amtrak.

There are two nominees of note: one gentleman representing labor – something long overdue and a return to the original Amtrak board composition half a century ago – and one gentleman representing the spirit of the Americans With Disabilities Act, someone else long overdue. At the conclusion of this article will be the full White House nominee announcements so everyone may see further information about the nominees.

One glaring omission in the first five nominees is a representative from California or anywhere on the West Coast. With all of the Amtrak-branded trains operated by the company as well as sponsored by the State of California it seems a huge snub for California to not be represented in the first round of nominees.

Overall, the inter-regional system is not strongly represented in the first five nominees, and it appears that other than one mayor of Illinois on the nominee list, all other nominees seem to be NEC-centric, which is a huge disappointment.

It’s also important to note that $4 billion of federal COVID relief funds still seem to be mysteriously unaccounted for in Amtrak’s immediate future plans. While that particular $4 billion seems to be in a cloud of mystery, Amtrak recently made its annual federal subsidy request of $3.3 billion, saying to Congress: “Our requested FY 2023 annual grant will allow Amtrak to continue operating our Long-Distance trains, which connect communities across the nation; to continue partnering with states to provide short-distance corridor service; and to continue normalized replacement (necessary maintenance and sustainment) of aged assets on the Northeast Corridor, all while facing new levels of uncertainty and disruption from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

Somebody forgot to tell Amtrak that the “uncertainty and disruption from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic” is just about over and is no longer a good excuse for extorting funds from the federal treasury. All other common carriers, such as airlines and cruise lines are roaring ahead with bookings and some are not only nearing pre-pandemic levels of business, but howling past that benchmark.

Many know that Amtrak has “reinvented” itself as its corporate structure too many times. It seems every new Amtrak administration has its own way of doing things and therefore turmoil and chaos ensue as new management teams are put in place, new names attached to types of business, and the Amtrak inhouse print shop (which through the years has done excellent work) keeps busy updating business cards and stationery.

One of the most successful was in the 1990s when Amtrak was internally broken up into three units: Amtrak West, Amtrak Intercity and the Northeast Corridor. Each unit had its own president and management team and was fairly self-contained when it came to making decisions and responding to any given crisis. It worked well until the next corporate president arrived.

Amtrak West was run by Gil Mallery, a gifted railroader and particularly capable division president who was well-liked by many and always acted with the best interest of the company in mind. Amtrak Intercity had a variety of presidents who oversaw their dominion and the NEC existed in its own world.

Amtrak West and Amtrak Intercity were more than happy for the NEC to be in its own world. Overall, everyone got along well.

It’s probably time to go back to that type of corporate organization where the NEC is fairly autonomous from the rest of the state regional system and the inter-regional trains. And, it’s probably time to take things a solid step further and divorce the NEC from the national system and have two separate companies with strong interline agreements.

Keep in mind the NEC was not originally a part of Amtrak; it was added when Penn Central Transportation Company was federalized and evolved into Conrail. The feds who created Conrail felt the company would not have a fighting chance at success as long as it was saddled with the infrastructure of the NEC, so Amtrak was “persuaded” to add it to its system. There were some wise heads at Amtrak who were much, much less than thrilled to become the new masters of the NEC.

Everyone’s worst nightmares about the NEC became true from just about every perspective. The only real winners in this were the commuter operations which were tenants on the NEC because they got a better railroad to operate over at a fraction of the real cost of maintaining the railroad. The other group was the former Pennsylvania Railroad guys at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia who were responsible for operating the NEC. They got their railroad back.

If The White House and Congress are going to continue to believe the main focus of Amtrak should be the NEC and Amtrak Connects US, then they should be allowed to follow their dream, but not at the expense of the rest of the country. Amtrak’s original charter hasn’t changed: the company is still obligated to operate a national system of inter-regional trains.

The original Amtrak charter will best be honored if the company goes back to its roots: a company without the burden of the NEC. And, it needs to be accomplished by having the national system utterly and completely divorced from the NEC.

For our brief purposes, let’s call the proposed nationwide company Amtrak National and let’s call the NEC and Amtrak Connects US projects Amtrak Corridors. Two companies, two corporate structures, two annual requests to Congress for annual subsidies, if needed. Of the tens of thousands of Amtrak employees, there are plenty to go around to staff to entities.

Amtrak National and Amtrak Corridors can compete for state subsidized regional routes; let the most capable and best company win. There’s nothing like honest competition to keep the business world honest.

Amtrak Corridors can keep its headquarters in the cesspool commonly known as Washington, D.C. Amtrak National can establish a new headquarters outside of Washington where its executives and managers have a higher and better knowledge of use of resources and the needs of a national operation without the undue political influence simply found by operating at the geographic bottom of the NEC and within the overheated confines of the District of Columbia.

A national system headquarters could be almost anywhere; somewhere in the geographic middle of the country would be a good start. Kansas City or St. Louis would be interesting venues; there are so few professional railroaders now in Chicago – which is devoid of any railroad headquarters – that it is not automatically at the top of any list.

A best case scenario is the United States Senate will reject most of the nominees The White House has submitted to constitute a new Amtrak Board of Directors. Even with a highly-divided Senate that is unlikely to happen; for appointees many senators of both parties believe a sitting president should be able to populate his government appointees with his choices.

By creating Amtrak National and Amtrak Corridors everyone wins. More and better trains will come to the national system because leaders away from the NEC will have a greater respect for host railroads and their needs while working with them to find reasonable solutions to new trains.

Unions will have more members because there will be at the very least longer train consists needing to be staffed and most likely more frequencies.

Passengers will like the new system because it will be based on their needs, not the available leftovers after the NEC is first gold-plated and any remaining resources grudgingly passed along to lesser cousins outside the NEC.

This is a VERY simplistic presentation to a solution to yet another untenable group of nominees to the Amtrak Board of Directors. But, if something major isn’t done it’s horribly obvious the national system will wither and die because of a lack of oxygen and nourishment.

We can either start talking about meaningful change now or simply watch it all go away over the next coming few years.

Here is further information about the new board nominees verbatim from The White House website:

President Biden Announces AMTRAK Board Member Nominees
April 29, 2022

• Statements and Releases

WASHINGTON – Today, President Biden announced his intent to nominate the following individuals to serve as members of the AMTRAK Board of Directors:

David Capozzi, Nominee for Member of the AMTRAK Board of Directors
Anthony Coscia, Nominee for Member of the AMTRAK Board of Directors
Christopher Koos, Nominee for Member of the AMTRAK Board of Directors
Samuel Lathem, Nominee for Member of the AMTRAK Board of Directors
Robin Wiessmann, Nominee for Member of the AMTRAK Board of Directors

David Capozzi, Nominee for Member of the AMTRAK Board of Directors

David Capozzi is a retired federal senior executive. He was the Executive Director of the U.S. Access Board from 2008-2020 and was the Director of the Board’s Office of Technical and Information Services from 1992-2008. Prior to joining the Access Board, Capozzi was Director of Project ACTION and Vice President of Advocacy for Easter Seals, and was the National Advocacy Director for the Paralyzed Veterans of America. He was a member of the legal team and lobbying captain for the disability community that helped craft the Americans with Disabilities Act. Capozzi was the lead negotiator on the Department of Transportation’s Federal Advisory Committee that negotiated proposed regulations implementing the Air Carrier Access Act, and chaired the Urban Mass Transportation Administration’s (UMTA) ADA Federal Advisory Committee.

He received the 2020 Service to the Citizen Award and an award from the Zero Project recognizing his longstanding cooperative efforts with the European Commission to harmonize global ICT accessibility standards. Capozzi serves on the United Spinal Association’s Board of Directors, Mobility Fitness’ Advisory Committee, and Access Living’s Program Committee. He is an Advisory Council Member for Morphic, and a Member of the International Association of Accessibility Professionals Built Environment Taskforce. Capozzi graduated from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo School of Law, and was an honors graduate and Phi Beta Kappa recipient at SUNY at Buffalo with an undergraduate degree in Psychology. He and his wife Patti live in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and are the proud parents of adult triplets and their older brother.

Anthony Coscia, Nominee for Member of the AMTRAK Board of Directors

Anthony R. Coscia serves as Chairman of AMTRAK Board of Directors appointed to the Board by President Barack Obama in 2010 and reappointed in 2015. Coscia is a partner and Executive Committee member of Windels Marx, LLP one of the region’s oldest law firms and has for over 30 years worked on transactions in the finance, real estate, healthcare, and infrastructure areas. Coscia also serves as a Director of OceanFirst Financial Corp and the Neighborhood Property Group, LLC; Vice Chairman of the Gateway Development Commission; and Senior Advisor to Oaktree Transportation Infrastructure Fund, L.P. He previously served as Chairman of Suez North America Inc. and a Director of Suez SA. He recently served on New Jersey Governor Murphy’s Restart and Recovery Commission.

Coscia was Chairman of the Board of Commissioners of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey from 2003 through January 2011 where he played a leadership role in the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan after 9/11. From February 1992 to March 2003, Coscia served as Chairman of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. In addition, Coscia serves on the Board of Directors of Georgetown University, the New Jersey Community Development Corporation, and the Regional Plan Association. He is also a member of The Partnership for New York City and The Economic Club of New York. Coscia is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and received his J.D. degree from Rutgers University School of Law.

Christopher Koos, Nominee for Member of the AMTRAK Board of Directors

Mayor Chris Koos was elected to his first term on the Normal Town Council in April of 2001. He was sworn in as Mayor of the Town of Normal on February 17, 2003, and his current term runs until 2025. Koos has the longest running term of any mayor in Normal’s history. Koos is a Bloomington-Normal native, and attended Central Catholic High School and Illinois State University. He served his country in Vietnam as an Infantry Platoon Leader with the Army 101st Airborne/Airmobile Division. He served as Chairman of the Town of Normal Historic Preservation Commission for ten years, and during the restoration of the historic Normal Theater, served as Chair of the Restoration Advisory Committee and on the Normal Theater Advisory Board.

During his tenure on the Town Council, Koos represented the Town on the Bloomington-Normal Area Convention and Visitors Bureau Committee, Economic Development Council, and Illinois Municipal League. He is also very involved with the Bloomington-Normal Japanese Sister Cities Committee. The expertise of Koos in urban development and transportation were provided in testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee in 2014, and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Subcommittee on Transportation and Public Assets in 2016. He currently serves on the Advisory Board of Transportation for America and is Vice Chair for Passenger Rail with the US Conference of Mayors. During his tenure as the Chief Elected Official for the Town of Normal, development in the Central Business District included a Multimodal Transportation Center/City Hall, the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, the Hyatt Place Hotel, the Children’s Discovery Museum, and other major multi-use construction.

Samuel Lathem, Nominee for Member of the AMTRAK Board of Directors

Rev. Samuel E. Lathem was elected as the first African-American President of Delaware State AFL-CIO in October 2003. In 1965, Lathem began work at the Chrysler Plant in Newark, Delaware. He was elected and served two three-year terms as Chief Steward in the Body Shop at Newark Assembly Plant. He was appointed as Civil Rights Chairman of Local 1183 UAW. He was then assigned the position of Administrator of the UAW-Chrysler Training Center in 1990 and was promoted to an International Rep of the UAW in February 1999. Lathem was ordained a Baptist Preacher in 1992 at the First Baptist Church of Morton, Pennsylvania by the New Hope Baptist Association. He currently serves as Associate Minister at Cornerstone Fellowship Baptist Church in Wilmington, Delaware.

Lathem’s spiritual integrity and diligence to serve his church and community has earned him the privilege of honored appointments such as the following: by Governor Dale Wolf to serve on the Interagency Council on Literacy, and by Governor Carper to serve on the Board of Directors for the Diamond State Port Corporation (Port of Wilmington) and the Workforce Investment Board. Lathem also serves as Chairman of the Delaware Advisory Council on Career and Vocational Education, and was appointed by Governor Minner to serve as the first African-American Delaware Commissioner on the Board of Directors of the Delaware River Bay Authority. Lathem serves on the Board of Directors for Junior Achievement, Kids Count Steering Committee, 4-H Foundation Committee, Board of Directors of SURJ (Stand Up for What’s Right and Just), Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, and United Way of Delaware, and serves as a Member of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. Lathem is married to Jean Lathem, and has two stepsons and two grandsons.

Robin Wiessmann, Nominee for Member of the AMTRAK Board of Directors

Robin Wiessmann is Executive Director and CEO of the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA). As CEO of PHFA, she manages operations and directs initiatives that promote development of affordable rental housing, and provide financing for homeownership. Prior to PHFA, Wiessmann served as Secretary of Banking and Securities in the cabinet of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, and previously as State Treasurer of the Commonwealth. Wiessmann has devoted her career to both the private and public sectors. As a national infrastructure investment banker, Wiessmann was a Founding Principal and President of Artemis Capital Group, the first women-owned investment banking firm on Wall Street, and held positions at Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch. Wiessmann served as Chairman of the Board for Vantagepoint Funds Mutual Fund, an Act 40 company, on the Board of the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, a self-regulatory organization under the SEC, and as a Board member of the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy. She chaired the Environmental Financing Advisory Board during the Clinton Administration.

Wiessmann is Secretary/Treasurer of the National Council of State Housing Agencies and is on the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia’s Economic and Community Advisory Council. She served as Secretary of the Conference of State Bank Supervisors and Chair of the Non-Depository Committee, and served multiple other economic development, policy, and supervisory boards, including the Public School and State Employees’ Retirement Systems and the Investor Protection Trust. She is a recipient of the Arthur E. Armitage, Sr. Distinguished Alumni Award from Rutgers Law School and is a graduate of Lafayette College.

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