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Senate Has Hard Questions for Amtrak Board Nominee

July 25, 2019

Mr. Rokita says the right things in testimony; Sen. Blumenthal demands a National Network advocate

Former Congressman Todd Rokita of Indiana testified at a hearing held by the Senate Commerce Committee yesterday, who examined his nomination be a member on the Amtrak Board of Directors. Mr. Rokita worked hard to assuage the members of the Committee that he was a true-believer in the importance of Amtrak as an essential national service, overcoming the negative impression created by his anti-Amtrak voting record during his time in Congress. But many Senators expressed doubt over his vision -- or lack thereof.

Rail Passengers staff was on hand to track the proceedings:

Mr. Rokita’s opening statement to the committee began with an anecdote from his younger life as a passenger, telling Senators that he took the Cardinal to travel from Muncie, Indiana to college and back again (and that he remembered it as a daily train). More recently, he took the three-times-a-week Cardinal with his son to visit family and friends, and they were forced to buy a sleeper because the train was so packed—which he took as a good sign.

“I believe the Board needs more experience and representation from areas of the country that utilize Amtrak’s long distance and state-supported routes like Indiana does,” said Mr. Rokita.

He did not bring up his voting record, but did point to his experience as an authorizer on the House T&I Committee and the T&I Rail Subcommittee.

Mr. Rokita identified three priorities he would pursue if he were confirmed:

  1. Justifying Amtrak’s Existing Network: “Many critics of Amtrak attribute low ridership numbers for(sic) the need to reduce its footprint, completely discounting that a robust national network is exactly what’s needed to attract ridership. This misconception needs to be rectified if Amtrak is to work for all of the US in my opinion.
    • Rokita emphasized frequency and consistency, saying “we don’t need to beat the airlines from city to city, we just need to know what if we [get on at] time X we’ll disembark at time Y, so we can plan our day… accordingly."
  2. Maximizing Amtrak’s Operational Efficiency to Increase Utilization: Rokita stated Amtrak is under tremendous safety scrutiny, especially after an accident like in Washington State. Board members must have a solemn appreciation of this duty.
  3. Addressing Amtrak’s Budgetary Limitations: Rokita believes every organization, no matter how well run, can get better; Amtrak is no exception.
    • Amtrak’s Board also plays a role in hiring the right executives and reviewing their performance, a role Rokia has experience in his current role at Apex.
    • “As Ranking Member Cantwell mentioned in her opening remarks, smart capitalization is also needed. I am committed to helping the leadership team—and Congress, you all—make the best decisions for use of that capital.”

Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) opened up the Q&A by talking about the importance of Amtrak to the nation, emphasizing Mr. Rokita’s statements about growing ridership and getting passengers to their destination on time, saying he believed there was a great opportunity to get people off overcrowded roads on on trains. He also asked if Mr. Rokita had any “preconceived notion about lines that should be eliminated in our Amtrak system?”

“No,” responded Mr. Rokita. “If confirmed, I understand it is a priority of many, if not all on this committee, and perhaps this Congress. It will be my opportunity and my desire to learn as much as I can. But certainly no preconceived notions to eliminate anything.”

Senator Blumenthal tackled Mr. Rokita’s anti-Amtrak voting record head-on, stating Amtrak is absolutely vital to the nation’s economy and asking him if he still stands by those votes.

“I stand by my testimony… which is that I believe in a national rail system,” Responded Mr. Rokita. “I have been a user of Amtrak my entire adult life. I’m not sure where the source comes from that I’m hostile to Amtrak or don’t like the idea simply because I voted no on some funding votes. As you know, Senator, sometimes when sending a message we’re limited to ‘yes,’ to ‘no,’ or to ‘present.”

[Rail Passengers note: the source was us; we tracked a number of anti-Amtrak votes that Mr. Rokita cast during his time in Congress. While some of the votes were general in nature, his record also includes very specific votes on amendments that would have entirely eliminated operations and capital grants, leading to the end of National Network service -- and potentially NEC service as well.]

“What was the message you were sending to Amtrak,” asked Sen. Blumenthal.

“The message is that we can all be fiscally responsible, and Amtrak is no exception,” said Mr. Rokita.

Senator Blumenthal wasn’t satisfied by this evasion, and pressed Mr. Rokita, who responded by citing Amtrak’s statutory obligation to use its best business judgment to minimize government subsidies. This angered Blumenthal, who said he was looking for Mr. Rokita to say: “My view will be different, I will be firmly committed to Amtrak, I am in favor of adequate funding, I believe in fiscal responsibility but Amtrak must be a priority for this nation.” Mr. Rokita said Congress sets those funding priorities, and if confirmed he would abide by those Congressionally set priorities.

“Will you recommend to us the amount of money required to make Amtrak a full-service, reliable, safe form of transportation for this nation,” pressed Sen. Blumenthal, saying he was looking for an advocate of passenger service, not a neutral manager. “We’re talking about adequate support from the Amtrak board for sufficient funding to meet the needs of our nation for a national rail system: safety, reliability, speed. This nation is way behind other modern industrialized nations in our rail system. We are in danger of becoming a third world country in terms of our rail service if we fail… to provide sufficient support and funding. And an Amtrak board member who says he or she is responsive to Congress is a welcome attribute, but I’m looking for a vigorous and staunch advocate for financial support for our national rail service.”

Ranking Member Cantwell continued to press Mr. Rokita on his votes, asking whether he thought federal funding was necessary for Amtrak and rural intercity service. Mr. Rokita restated that he thought Amtrak should be a national system and that Amtrak needs government support.

The Senate Commerce Committee will have up to a few weeks to send its recommendations to the full Senate for final confirmation.

Tweet or phone a "thank you!" to Senators Wicker, Cantwell, and Blumenthal for their committed defense of passenger rights and a national Amtrak:

  • Senator Roger Wicker, Mississippi - @SenatorCantwell - (202) 228-0514
  • Senator Maria Cantwell, Washington - @SenatorWicker - (202) 224-6253
  • Senator Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut - @SenBlumenthal - (202) 224-2823