Obama’s unabashed champion of passenger rail exits

By Sean Reilly | 01/20/2015 01:13 PM EST

Only last spring, Joe Szabo was playing a familiar role in his job as head of the Federal Railroad Administration: fending off criticism of California’s high-speed rail project from congressional detractors questioning whether it would ever be built.

Only last spring, Joe Szabo was playing a familiar role in his job as head of the Federal Railroad Administration: fending off criticism of California’s high-speed rail project from congressional detractors questioning whether it would ever be built.

Earlier this month, as he prepared to leave the post he’d held for almost six years, Szabo was in a less accustomed spot: celebrating the huge — and hugely controversial — endeavor at a ceremonial groundbreaking in Fresno (Greenwire, Jan. 7).

Although the timing was coincidental, "I just can’t think of a better way to end my tenure," he said afterward.


It was a final high note in what Szabo calls a "wonderful and wild" ride unlike that of any of his predecessors at the small Transportation Department agency — one marked by partisan strife over unprecedented passenger rail spending, the struggle to implement two landmark laws, and safety worries unleashed by the boom in railroad oil shipments. At congressional hearings, Szabo bore the brunt of Republican attacks on the Obama administration’s embrace of high-speed rail. Even allies question whether he was able to change the mindset of an agency historically aligned with the freight rail industry.

Regrets? Szabo, 57, professed none in a follow-up interview just before he officially stepped down this month to take a job in his hometown of Chicago.

"You can’t have regrets," he said. "You have to have confidence in the job that you’ve set out to do."

Among his proudest accomplishments, he said, are a sharp drop in on-the-job deaths among railroad workers and fostering "game-changing" improvements in states’ ability to plan and carry out rail projects. FRA’s policy office was restructured, he said, with fresh talent. If the Obama administration’s vision for high-speed bullet trains remains a tough sell with Republican lawmakers, Szabo predicted it’s only a matter of time before Congress catches up with grass-roots pressure to get on board.

Joe Szabo
Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo speaking at the groundbreaking for California ‘s high-speed rail system, days before stepping down after an almost six-year tenure. | Photo courtesy of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

"I leave with a high level of satisfaction," Szabo said. Prompting his departure, he said, is the need to tend to his ailing 87-year-old father. Last week, he started a job as senior fellow at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. Temporarily taking his place at the railroad administration is Sarah Feinberg, a former White House aide who joined the Department of Transportation as chief of staff 16 months ago. There is no timetable for naming a new permanent administrator, according to DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx.

President Obama nominated Szabo, who had the backing of Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), to run the railroad administration in March 2009. Unanimous Senate confirmation followed little more than a month later. In naming Szabo, a onetime railyard switchman and train conductor who became a state lobbyist with what was then the United Transportation Union, the White House broke with a tradition of plucking FRA leaders from the ranks of railroad management, said Larry Mann, a rail safety attorney. Mann, who considers Szabo a friend, called him "an excellent administrator."

Despite his labor background, Szabo "did not cater to the unions," Mann said. "His approach was balanced. He called it the way he felt was appropriate."

But because career federal employees cannot be easily removed from their jobs, Mann said, Szabo had less success in overhauling the culture of a regulatory agency long seen by critics as tilted toward the industry it is supposed to oversee.

In 2005, for example, DOT’s inspector general reproved one top official for taking vacations with a lobbyist for Union Pacific Corp. Although the review found no evidence of favoritism, the inspector general noted that Union Pacific was inspected proportionately less even though it had the highest average number of train accidents of the four major freight railroads. In addition, all four carriers "had substantial safety and inspection issues," the report said.

Szabo arrived at FRA just after Congress had handed the agency sweeping new mandates with the 2008 passage of two major laws: the Rail Safety Improvement Act and the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act. The first, enacted barely a month after a collision between freight and commuter trains killed 25 people near Los Angeles, was the most comprehensive piece of rail safety legislation in almost 40 years. Most notably, it set a December 2015 deadline for railroads to implement positive train control, an umbrella term for an array of costly anti-crash communication technologies.

The passenger rail investment law was Amtrak’s first reauthorization in more than a decade. Among other provisions, it ordered FRA to help the passenger railroad set standards to improve chronically poor train punctuality. In addition, the railroad administration, which had hitherto run only small grant programs, was charged with doling out some $8 billion for high-speed and intercity passenger rail projects appropriated in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

"Obviously, the plate is full, but I truly cannot think of a better time, a more exciting time to be leading FRA," Szabo said at his Senate confirmation hearing.

High-speed rail controversy

Szabo quickly established himself as a strong advocate of expanding passenger rail service to meet future transportation needs.

But FRA’s handling of the high-speed rail program came under fire from critics who said the agency was spreading the money around too many projects to produce much payoff.

In the 2010 elections, Republicans targeted the grants as a prime example of stimulus-related waste. Within months of winning office, newly elected GOP governors in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin canceled planned high-speed rail ventures, cumulatively rejecting more than $3 billion in previously approved federal funding.

"I laughed at them," Szabo said, adding that Wisconsin is now proceeding with improvements to the Chicago-Milwaukee line "on their own dime."

A large chunk of the returned money was rerouted to California, where boosters credit the shift with helping the state move forward with what is eventually supposed to be a line linking San Francisco and Los Angeles. While further challenges are inevitable, Szabo said, the project has reached a tipping point where "sustained construction is a reality."

On Capitol Hill, however, it remains an object of scorn for Republicans, who question both the ballooning price tag — now projected at $68 billion — and California’s long-term strategy for paying the bills.

At last April’s hearing of the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, Szabo had to rebut a suggestion from then-Chairman Tom Latham (R-Iowa) that the administration had given up on the endeavor. In a news release on the day of the groundbreaking, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) again predicted that the link will never be finished.

"It’s hard to celebrate breaking ground on what is likely to become abandoned pieces of track that never connect to a usable segment," said Denham, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure railroads subcommittee.

Szabo has also clashed with the Association of American Railroads, the freight rail industry’s main trade group, over issues like the minimum crew size needed for freight trains (Greenwire, Dec. 23, 2014).

The association has challenged Amtrak’s authority to set the performance standards in a lawsuit now awaiting a Supreme Court decision (Greenwire, Dec. 8, 2014).

Asked for comment on Szabo’s tenure, the association’s president and CEO, Edward Hamberger, issued a statement wishing him well and thanking him "for his service and his shared dedication to safely bringing home each rail employee after his or her shift."

‘You always have to do better’

The railroad administration nonetheless continues to face criticism that it’s not aggressive enough in promoting safety, particularly as crude-by-rail traffic skyrockets.

While Szabo touts across-the-board improvements in every safety area tracked by FRA, the agency is a "pitiful" regulator, said Fred Millar, a rail safety consultant who says more must be done to reroute trains carrying crude and other hazardous materials away from major urban centers.

Following the release of a scathing National Transportation Safety Board report in October on lapses at a New York City-area commuter railroad, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called the findings an indictment of FRA oversight. "We must assume that safety and reliability standards receive real enforcement, not just lip service," Blumenthal said in a news release.

"We accept as part of our daily challenge to ourselves that you always have to do better," Szabo responded. But, he added, "our record of success is impressive and it speaks for itself."

Szabo’s departure came with the Supreme Court decision pending. The rail industry is expected to miss this December’s deadline for positive train control implementation. In Congress, the reauthorization process for the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act has already begun.

Asked how FRA, whose 840-strong workforce is little changed from six years ago, despite the added workload, can do its job without permanent leadership, Szabo said he had the "highest level of confidence" in the agency’s permanent staff.

One of the biggest take-aways from his tenure, Szabo said, is the "level of intellect, dedication, the work ethic of the career professionals here, and so I am not concerned."

Reporter Debra Kahn contributed.