Dukakis, Gunn share concerns about makeup, objectives of current Amtrak board

Former presidential candidate and board member, retired CEO note lack of transportation expertise, partisanship among current nominees
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Former Amtrak president and CEO David Gunn.
Bob Johnston

WASHINGTON Former Democratic presidential candidate and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis remembers his time on the Amtrak Board of Directors as working with people well-versed in transportation and “committed to the simple but powerful notion that the entire country needs a first-class rail passenger system.” Former Amtrak president and CEO David Gunn similarly remembers the board he worked with as being an intelligent group with backgrounds in transportation.

Both men have concerns about the current nature of the Amtrak board.

The Senate Commerce Committee Committee held a confirmation hearing Wednesday on the Trump Administration’s latest nominee for the Amtrak board, former U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.). Rokita voted for unsuccessful efforts to cut Amtrak funding through budget amendments in 2011, 2015, and 2017.

Three of the president’s previous nominees, Joseph Gruters, Rick Dearborn, and Leon Westmoreland, were submitted for confirmation in 2018 and resubmitted this year but yet to be confirmed because U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) has put a hold on all of their confirmations.

Moran and other GOP and Democratic senators from Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico have assumed an activist, oversight role ever since Amtrak’s management last year attempted substitute bus service for part of the Southwest Chief.

All of President Donald Trump’s proposed board members are politically engaged Republicans with no transportation experience; Westmoreland, a former Georgia congressman, voted for two of the same “defund Amtrak” amendments as Rokita.

Dukakis, now a college political science professor who splits teaching between Northeastern University and UCLA, tells Trains News Wire the Amtrak Board he served on “was bipartisan by agreement. I don’t think any of us bought into the idea that Amtrak would pay for itself; we never talk about highway (losses), right? We have to serve all parts of the country, and in any event, we have an infrastructure deficit, and that means public funding (to fix it). The board I served on was quite unified around that notion.”

He says, “Whether it's (Amtrak’s) state corridors, Northeast Corridor, or the national network, the money is certainly all coming from the same place. Highways, trains, and airports are all public resources of a national transportation system that deserves support.

“It’s a question of what you think your priorities are,” Dukakis continues. “Don’t get me started on the size of the defense budget and what’s going on there — it’s just preposterous. My prescription, get us a new president and a congress that supports a strong passenger rail system and let’s go to work!”

Gunn, meanwhile, tells Trains News Wire, “I was lucky when I went to Amtrak because I had Mike Dukakis, John Robert Smith [now Chairman of Transportation for America], Gov. Linwood Holton [Republican from Virginia] and a very smart guy, Michael Jackson, who was the Department of Transportation representative, on the Board.”

As the board’s acting chairman in 2002, Dukakis made the phone call to then-retired Gunn in Nova Scotia, urging him to take the Amtrak job. They became friends when Gunn ran Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Gunn recalls that when he was CEO that Jackson, the DOT representative, “wasn’t a pro-Amtrak guy but he believed in honesty, telling the truth and getting things done. He would give you a heads up if you were getting on thin ice [with the George W. Bush Administration] and when you weren’t — he was good at that. Jackson wouldn’t fit in today,” Gunn quips.

But Gunn warns, “Politically appointed boards are worthless and dangerous if they bring nothing to the party.” Gunn is especially concerned now because following management buyouts over the last two years, Amtrak lacks employees and managers who know, understand, and appreciate railroad practices—what works and what doesn’t.

“It’s very sad what’s going on now at Amtrak — the institutional knowledge is almost destroyed. And the people being nominated (to the board) to oversee them are, at best, lazy politicians.”   

In Wednesday’s hearing, Rokita defended his votes against Amtrak funding by saying his vote “sent a message” to Amtrak about fiscal responsibility, but that he favors a robust passenger train system. In response to a question from Committee chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Rokita said keeping a national system was a priority and that he had “no preconceived notions to eliminate” any trains.

No action was taken on the nomination. Committee members will be given time to submit more questions to Rokita in writing before voting on his nomination.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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