The Senate confirmed the nominations of Robert Primus and Michelle Schultz to the Surface Transportation Board (STB) on Nov. 18. Both nominees were recommended by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation on a bipartisan basis and were confirmed by a voice vote.
The STB Reauthorization Act of 2015 expanded the agency to five commissioners from its previous three. Under the law, there can be no more than three STB members from a single political party, with the majority and the chairmanship held by the party that controls the White House. The confirmations of Primus and Schultz mean that STB will be at its congressionally authorized size of five members for the first time since enactment of the 2015 law. Given the impending departure of STB chair Ann Begeman, whose term expires on Dec. 31, the letter said it was particularly important to confirm the nominees to preserve a sufficient number of STB members to enable it to continue functioning efficiently.
Schultz, a Republican whose nomination has been approved by the Senate committee twice previously, most recently served as associate general counsel for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) – the commuter rail system of Philadelphia, Pa.
Primus, a Democrat, most recently served as chief of staff to Rep. Nanette Barragάn (D., Cal.) A native of Madison, N.J., he spent 20 years as a staff member for former Rep. Mike Capuano (D., Mass.), four of those as his legislative director and the last 16 as chief of staff while Capuano served on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.
“Both have the mental acuity, independence and dedication to serve and will work well with existing board members to achieve the agency’s statutory mission and role, which is critical to railroads, rail users and the American economy,” the National Grain & Feed Assn. and 54 other agricultural organizations noted in a Nov. 19 letter to Senate leaders.
“The current dynamics of the rail marketplace underscore the need for fair, impartial and knowledgeable board members, who are essential to providing effective oversight,” the organizations wrote. “Thoughtful board members also are needed to make progress on practical regulatory reforms that improve STB oversight of freight railroads."
The organizations added that ongoing modernization of STB – initiated by enactment of the STB Reauthorization Act and pursued under the leadership of Begeman – "will help farmers, agribusinesses and manufacturers be more competitive in the global marketplace.”
The Rail Customer Coalition, which represents the largest customers of freight rail, applauded the Senate's bipartisan vote and said it looks forward to continuing to work with STB to promote competition and streamline overly bureaucratic procedures. In July, coalition sent a letter to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation urging confirmation of the nominees. Coalition members account for more than half of the total volume of cargo shipped by rail and generate more than three-quarters of the revenue collected by America’s Class I railroads, which is why a functioning and proactive STB is so essential to its members.
Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said, “Farmers and ranchers rely upon freight rail to move American-grown products from all regions of the country to markets at home and abroad, as well as to provide critical farm supplies to help plant, tend and harvest crops. Ensuring we have a functioning and fully staffed STB is critical for the agency to carry out its charge to protect the interests of farmers, rural businesses and railroads.”
John Bode, president and chief executive officer of the Corn Refiners Assn. (CRA), congratulated the appointments and the work done by Congress and the Trump Administration to fill the positions. “CRA members are highly dependent upon reliable and economic rail transportation for their products, and we look forward to working with Mr. Primus and Ms. Schultz, along with the rest of the STB, on the reforms needed to ensure a reliable and efficient rail system.”