Senate Commerce Committee Approves Aviation and Amtrak Nominees and USDOT Reporting Bill

September 5, 2018

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved Wednesday two transportation-related nominees and a bill to streamline Department of Transportation reporting requirements.

Aviation and International Affairs nominee. The committee approved by voice vote the nomination of Joel Szabat to be Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Aviation and International Affairs. Mr. Szabat is already leading that office on an interim basis as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs (the Assistant Secretary position being currently vacant).

Mr. Szabat had a fairly easy time at his confirmation hearing two weeks ago. After being introduced by former Transportation Sec. Ray LaHood and being called “uniquely qualified” by Commerce chairman John Thune (R-ND), Mr. Szabat outlined his three priorities of promoting aviation safety, ensuring international agreements are fair for American taxpayers and industry, and working for rural communities served by the Essential Air Service (EAS) and Small Community Air Service Development Program (SCASDP). He fielded questions on those two programs and the United States’ aviation relationship with China.

Amtrak Board of Directors nominee. In the only roll call vote of the executive session, the committee approved Rick Dearborn to the Amtrak Board of Directors 14-13 along party lines.

Mr. Dearborn, who was previously President Trump’s Deputy Chief of Staff and executive director of his presidential transition team, has run into trouble during his confirmation process centered largely around what senators say is Amtrak’s and the Trump Administration’s lack of commitment to maintaining its long-distance routes. This includes, for example, the Trump FY19 budget proposing to cut the federal subsidy for Amtrak routes in half, thereby forcing cash-strapped states to make up the difference.

While every Republican on the committee voted to advance his nomination, several later expressed that their support for Mr. Dearborn was not without condition. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) said he plans to “ensure that Amtrak actually lives up to the promise it made” to people who live along the Southwest Chief route. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) said he “intend[s] to place a hold on this nomination… pending an understanding from the [Amtrak] leadership—the CEO and others at Amtrak—about commitment that was made and to have a full understanding of their commitment to long-distance passenger train routes.”

Last month, the Senate passed a Transportation-HUD appropriations “mini-bus” bill that included an amendment to maintain Amtrak’s Southwest Chief rail service, a long-haul route that connects Chicago to Los Angeles. Amtrak’s new leadership had previously proposed breaking up the route and replacing some segments with bus service.

Every Democrat on the committee voted against his nomination, though not necessarily based on his qualifications: Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) said he “had full intention to vote for this man until his hearing. There were questions asked about his involvement in Russia that were not clarified. Hopefully there will be some debate on this floor.” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) pointed out that Mr. Dearborn had already answered questions about Russia in a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

USDOT reporting requirements. The committee also reported out a bill to, in the words of lead sponsor chairman Thune, “streamline the reports the Department of Transportation is required to produce so the department can focus its resources on the most important issues.”

The Department of Transportation Reports Harmonization Act (S. 3367), eliminates or reduces the frequency of several reports that DOT is required to submit to Congress. Some of these changes include:

  • Making a report to Congress on research about in-vehicle alcohol detection devices biennial instead of annual;
  • Eliminating a biennial report to Congress evaluating each state’s performance with respect to their highway safety plans and the performance targets set in those plans;
  • Adding to the annual DOT budget submission an evaluation of the effectiveness of hazardous materials transportation regulation enforcement activities and a summary of outstanding problems (currently submitted as its own report);
  • Adding to the annual Department of the Interior budget submission a report on the National Maritime Heritage Grants Program (currently submitted as its own report); and
  • Allowing the NTSB to submit its annual accident investigation report (49 U.S. Code § 1117) as part of its annual budget submission OR as a separate report. (This provision was added in the substitute version of the bill passed out of committee.)

The bill also includes several provisions related to transportation safety. Under the bill:

  • The Secretary must respond publicly within 90 days to any recommendation about transportation safety from NTSB, including whether the Secretary intends to adopt the complete recommendation, part of the recommendation, or refuse, including a timetable for implementation or justification for refusal;
  • The Comptroller General of the United States must review USDOT’s highway safety programs, report to Congress on the progress states have made towards their safety targets and their utilization of grants to do so, and provide recommendations for improving those programs (This provision was added in the substitute version of the bill passed out of committee);
  • The Secretary must make publicly available a list of each statutory mandate regarding pipeline safety or hazardous materials safety that has not yet been implemented;
  • The DOT Inspector General must make public a list of each open safety recommendation made by the IG regarding pipeline safety or hazardous materials safety; and
  • The Secretary must make publicly available biennially a statistical compilation of accidents and casualties related to the transportation of hazardous materials.

The bill also sunsets several advisory councils and committees, including:

  • The Advisory Council on Transportation Statistics (established in MAP-21);
  • The National Rail Cooperative Research Program Oversight Committee (established by the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008); and
  • The Northeast Corridor Safety Committee (also established by the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act), which it makes a working group of the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee and sunsets when positive train control (PTC) is fully implemented on the Northeast Corridor.

The original version of the bill also sunset the Intelligent Transportation Systems Program Advisory Committee (established by SAFETEA-LU), but that was removed in the substitute version.

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