“Mayor was a part-time job and full-time responsibility. I was state director for the UTU at that time, so I would spend all day in the office and then go home and spend all evening at the village hall and then virtually every weekend at the village hall,” Szabo says.
Eventually the burden of local community service and state union service got to be too much and Szabo elected to not seek reelection as Riverdale’s mayor. Focusing on his duties as the UTU’s state legislative director, Szabo found himself increasingly given national responsibilities.
“Although I was the state director in Illinois, I was assigned to the FRA’s Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC), which helped draft all the federal rulemakings.
“So that heightened both my experience as well as visibility. And obviously, I met the president when he was a state senator back in Illinois,” Szabo says with a laugh.
“I’m not the only one that says this, but we remember his first day walking into the state capital in Springfield roughly 12 years ago.
“So I had a working relationship with the president at that time,” Szabo says.
“And all the pieces kind of just came together.”
Szabo just laughed when I asked him how much things had changed in the last year for the FRA with the investiture of $8 billion in federal stimulus funding for high-speed rail.
“Well, without question it’s a transformational time for the agency. The line we use — and it’s the truth — is that historically we were a rail safety agency that once a year wrote a little grant to Amtrak,” Szabo says.
“And that’s substantially changed. Obviously, now we’ve been handed a presidential spotlight program with the high speed rail program, so our role in grant making and passenger rail development has just exploded.
“And so we have to make the adjustments again to transform ourselves, recreate ourselves, to make sure that we properly meet those responsibilities while not losing sight of the fact that we are and always will be foremost a safety agency.”
Szabo says that it’s not that the FRA has changed its focus so much as that focus required expansion. A challenge he says they are meeting through staffing up and building depth.
“Quite frankly, what the small staff has been able to do in roughly a 12-month period has really been remarkable,” Szabo says.
“Starting with the original vision statement that was put together on behalf of the White House. The development of the grant guidance. Getting the notice of funds available out there. Reviewing all the applications. Announcing the awards, and now we’re in a situation where we have to simultaneously get those awards out the door, get the money out the door, while we move forward on a second round of grants.”
But all this activity hasn’t come without its share of detractors — those that claim spending this much money on rail is a giant “boondoggle.” Controversy surrounds several of the rail projects awarded stimulus funds, including calls to give the money back to the FRA or be allowed to spend it on highways. Szabo’s response to this criticism is as simple as it is succinct — if you don’t want it give it back.
“First off, if the state doesn’t want the money, believe me there are other states that do. The competition has been absolutely intense,” Szabo says pointing out that roughly 36 states filed $58 billion worth of applications for the stimulus funds.
“You are always going to have detractors, but if there is a state that doesn’t want the money, there is somebody else that does.
“Clearly, part of the application process is that the state does have to assume responsibility for the operations, but there is not a mode of transportation anywhere that isn’t subsidized to some extent,” Szabo says.
“To the detractors I would say are you telling me you don’t want a new interstate constructed because you are going to have to pay for the maintenance of it?
“Are you going to tell me you don’t want a new airport built because you are going to have to pay for the ongoing maintenance of it?