Yesterday, the Senate confirmed Sarah Feinberg to head the Federal Railroad Administration. Feinberg has been acting administrator since January. She replaced Joseph Szabo, who had spent decades in the railroad industry and was active in the United Transportation Union. Under George W. Bush, FRA was headed by engineer Allan Rutter, now a research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, and Joe Boardman, the current CEO of Amtrak who has spent more the 40 years in the transportation and railroad industries.
Feinberg is a career Democratic Party public relations flak and has held a number of political appointments on the Obama administration’s spin team. Feinberg graduated from Washington and Lee University in 1999 with a degree in politics. Beyond her political career, she had briefly worked in the communications shops of Facebook and Bloomberg between gigs in the Obama White House. But her relevant experience in being the nation’s top railroad safety regulator? USDOT has unfortunately long been a dumping ground of political patronage, but has gotten even more ridiculous under the Obama administration. Unless FRA’s safety strategy is solely focused on deflecting blame following the next Amtrak derailment, it seems odd to fill such an important position with someone wholly unqualified.
But it gets worse. Congress in recent weeks has been fighting over a needed positive train control (PTC) mandate deadline extension. PTC, the incredibly expensive and low-value safety technology Congress ordered passenger and large freight railroads to install in 2008, has been championed by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. If the PTC implementation date wasn’t extended beyond the current December 31 deadline, the railroads (including most commuter railroads) were to begin shutting down many of their operations in December, which would have ruined many Christmases.
Sen. Boxer was strongly opposed to extending the PTC deadline, although many had wondered why. We now know why. In an interview with Politico, Sen. Boxer was quoted as saying: “Here was my option: shutting down the Highway Trust Fund and not having this administrator or keeping it open and having [Feinberg].”
There you have it. Sen. Boxer is on record as saying she would have risked shutting down federal highway programs and many of the nation’s railroads unless her political PR flak pal was confirmed for a key safety regulatory position she is unqualified to hold. Holding the nation’s transportation system hostage to extract a partisan political favor? To me at least, this makes clear that Barbara Boxer herself should be disqualified from holding the top Democratic spot on Senate EPW.