WASHINGTON — Hours after Wednesday’s fatal train crash in rural Virginia, the Trump administration sent a letter to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer arguing that Democratic opposition to the man nominated to be the Federal Railway Administration's top railroad safety regulator was posing a threat to the public.
“While the circumstances of that crash are being reviewed by the Federal Railroad Administration, it is clear that the agency needs to have its chief rail safety official in place,” U.S. Department of Transportation Deputy Secretary Jeffrey Rosen said in the letter.
The train was carrying House and Senate Republicans to a retreat in West Virginia when it collided with a garbage truck, killing one person on the truck and causing multiple other injuries.
In August, Schumer, along with several other Senate Democrats from the Northeast, put a procedural hold on the nomination of Ron Batory, a former chief operating officer of Conrail, to run the Federal Railroad Administration. Democrats were angry that federal officials rejected a proposed Obama-era deal to fund a new rail tunnel beneath the Hudson River connecting New York and New Jersey as part of what's known as the Gateway project.
“Today's tragic accident is not the first one to occur during the lengthy delay,” Rosen said Wednesday in the letter, referring to a deadly derailment in Washington State in December. “In the interest of public safety, I am asking that you set aside wholly unrelated issues and remove your hold on his nomination to become the Federal Railroad Administrator,” Rosen said in the letter, obtained by NBC News. Schumer’s office declined to comment.
Democrats say Batory is already working full time at the agency, despite the delay in his official confirmation, making it unfair to draw a connection to the train crashes. Further, some Republican senators also have holds on nominees, including Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who has holds on numerous Department of Justice nominees in protest of the administration’s stance on marijuana legalization.
The letter escalates a battle between Schumer and Trump over infrastructure that’s been percolating over the past few weeks.
A massive infrastructure bill is Trump’s next big legislative goal, and some Democrats say the president wants to include the Gateway project as a bargaining chip to pressure Schumer to support a bill that Democrats have been critical of. Unlike with the tax cut bill he signed into law in December, Trump will need at least nine Democrats to win approval of an infrastructure package.
The proposal, details of which are still being crafted, would likely seek to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure through public-private partnerships that Democrats say amount to a giveaway to companies that won’t prioritize the nation’s most urgent needs. Republicans say they are working on ideas for additional funding streams.
The Gateway tunnel is essential to the Northeast's economy. Under the 2015 deal cut by President Barack Obama, the federal government, Amtrak, New York and New Jersey would have split the estimated $13 billion cost of building a tunnel connecting New Jersey to Penn Station, the busiest transit hub in the U.S.
The two current tunnels, on which millions of commuters rely, are more than a century old and Hurricane Sandy further weakened them.
In late December, as the Trump administration wrapped up its tax cut legislative battle, Federal Transit Administration Deputy Administrator Jane Williams wrote a letter to New York officials saying no such deal exists.
A Trump transportation official underscored that point, telling NBC News that officials are still unable to find evidence such a deal was agreed upon. “We’ve turned the place upside down and no such agreement existed,” the official said.
Railway officials expect further updates Thursday on the Virginia accident, namely whether the truck got stuck or if it was trying to out run the train, a federal transit official told NBC.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team of investigators to the scene. NTSB investigations can take a year or more to complete, and Earl Weener, a member of the board, said Wednesday night that investigators wouldn't speculate on any possible cause.
Batory retired last March from Conrail after a 46-year career in the rail industry that included serving as president of the Belt Railway of Chicago and senior roles at Class 1 and regional railroads. The White House announced his nomination last July 11.