O'Neill and Associates' transportation expert Peter Goelz was featured in the following POLITICO article. The full version can be found online at Politico.com
This week’s deadly Amtrak crash has stoked an intense debate about the safety of the U.S. railways, but one critical piece is missing from that conversation — a permanent head for the federal government’s top railroad agency.
President Barack Obama has failed to nominate a leader for the Federal Railroad Administration for 127 days and counting, a vacancy that experts say could hamper the federal response to the accident that killed eight people and injured more than 200 others.
“Career employees who have been here before this administrator and will be here after this administrator know that an acting administrator has less authority,” said Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, which has issued the FRA a flurry of recommended safeguards over the years that the agency has yet to implement. He said the lack of a permanent leader can only be a “detriment.”
The agency’s acting chief, Sarah Feinberg, is a former Facebook executive and ex-aide to Rahm Emanuel who hasCLOSE ties to the White House and much popularity on the Hill — but little substantial railroad experience. And as only an interim boss, she faces obstacles in even attempting to make the changes that FRA critics want to see at the agency, which some lawmakers have lambasted as too slow to regulate and too cozy with the railroads it oversees.
The agency also hasn’t had a deputy administrator since September.
The White House praises Feinberg’s performance, which has included an aggressive outreach to Congress that won over some of the agency’s harshest critics. This week, she briefed more than a half-dozen lawmakers about the Amtrak crash and spent two days near the scene in Philadelphia, where sources say she headed barely 15 minutes after Tuesday night’s accident.
“While we have no personnel announcements at this time, it is important to note that Acting Administrator Feinberg is providing excellent leadership of the FRA during this time,” a White House official said Friday.
Still, the White House is showing no signs it plans to fill the slot anytime soon, let alone put her in it. And with lawmakers already pointing fingers in the wake of the crash, and reform proposals already being floated, experts said the FRA needs a permanent head who has the credibility that comes with SenateCONFIRMATION and is less immune to the political forces that will shape the response to the safety crisis.
Feinberg is showing every sign that she’s interested in the nomination. She’s also tried to dispel any impression of coziness with the railroads, declaring earlier this month that “we are not an agency with a goal of making things convenient or inexpensive for industry.” Near this week’s crash scene, she told POLITICO she’ll continue to push the railroads toINSTALL a speed-control technology that investigators said would have prevented the fatal derailment, despite the companies’ complaints about the costs.
The railroad agency also made a point of announcing on Wednesday that Feinberg would beJOINING investigators in Philadelphia, which is part of a purposeful turn toward more transparency that Feinberg initiated. The lawmakers she briefed on the accident included Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), as well as Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), who heads the House’s railroads subcommittee.
But observers of the agency say her interim status puts her in the role of a substitute teacher, minding a flock that knows she may be heading for the exit soon. That’s on top of other limits on the agency’s performance, such as itsCONTINUED complaints that Congress hasn’t given it the authority to better manage some safety initiatives.
“Of course,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who sits on the House Transportation Committee, when asked whether not having a permanent head is a drag on the agency’s response.
Still, one former Democratic Senate aide said acting administrators are less of a problem than the perception they create of vacancy at the top.
“Institutionally, it is always better to have somebody who has the confidence in the Senate in that slot,” the aide said. “It’s not that the agency’s people aren’t going to listen to her, it’s because people take shots — the media and everybody else, people question because she’s an interim. And you don’t want that. You want certainty.”
But the aide said he doubted Feinberg would let the “acting” in her title get in her way. “Sarah’s pretty much a hard-ass. I don’t think the lack of a title would stop her — that’s just my impression of Sarah.”
David Clarke, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, said the lack of a permanent administrator isn’t necessarily an impediment to an agency doing its job. “The administrator obviously is the leader of the FRA forces, but you’ve got a pretty good group of staff that carry out the day-to-dayACTIVITIES of the administration,” he said.
Goelz, the former NTSB official, said Feinberg deservesCREDIT for what he calls an “outstanding job” on the substance of rail policy, for instance by prying loose a long-stuck regulation meant to lessen the dangers of trains that transport crude oil. The final rule came out at the beginning of May, 3 1/2 months after the deadline that an impatient Congress had set after years of delays.
“My understanding is shePLAYED a major role in getting that moving,” Goelz said. But he said that the longer Feinberg sits in the post without being nominated, the more questions it raises about “whether the White House has full confidence in her.”
The vacancy at the top of the FRA mirrors the 220-plus days that have gone by without a permanent leader for another Department of Transportation agency that plays a role in rail oversight, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Both agencies regulate aspects of the surging practice of transporting crude oil by train, which has led to derailments and explosions in communities from North Dakota to Alabama to Virginia in the past two years.
The administration has offered no explanation for the delays, although Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has said Feinberg — his one-time chief of staff — “has my complete confidence.”
Feinberg has declined repeatedly to discuss on the record her handling of the job, but she’s long been a known quantity in Washington: She spent years working for Emanuel, including as the communications director of the House Democratic Caucus and then as a senior White House adviser when Emanuel was Obama’s chief of staff. She’s also been one-half of a Washington power couple with her 2006 marriage to former White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer, though they later separated.
After leaving the White House, she jumped to the private sector, taking communications gigs at Bloomberg and Facebook.
Her fans on and off the Hill say she’s brought aREFRESHING openness to a notoriously closed agency, especially compared with her immediate predecessor, fifth-generation railroad veteran Joseph Szabo, who left Jan. 9.
While Szabo boasted that his six-year tenure had seen a “dramatic improvement in safety,” he had a testy relationship with lawmakers who pointedly disagreed and accused him of keeping them out of the loop. Last fall, after a spree of transit accidents in New York and Connecticut that killed six people and injured 126, Blumenthal accused Szabo of running “a rogue agency” that disregards Congress’ mandates and deadlines.
In contrast, Feinberg has waged a charm offensive with Congress that left even Blumenthal praising her. Since taking the helm of the FRA, sources say, she has met with more than 40 members of Congress one-on-one, usually without staff.
“She has been far more transparent and vigorous in overseeing an agency with very profoundly important responsibilities for rail safety and reliability,” the senator told POLITICO in April. The House Transportation Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, agreed on that score last month, saying that “I would say she is a rare combination of substance and political background.”
But DeFazio, who has been clashing with the White House on trade policy, said Friday that he has no insight into whether the administration plans to nominate Feinberg for the post. “I’m not exactly on the best terms with them right now,” he said.
Heather Caygle and Jennifer Scholtes contributed to this report.
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