Gruters Grilled on Amtrak Plans

Politics

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY FRESHLY SQUEEZED CONTENT EVERY MORNING THURSDAY MAY 17, 2018

Joe Gruters helped President Donald Trump win the White House. Now can he help get the trains to run on time? The Sarasota state representative told leaders in Washington on Wednesday he will focus on safety and efficiency if confirmed as a member of Amtrak’s board of directors, and promised he’d try and expand service in the Sunshine State. “As a Floridian, I look forward to working with you for a reasonable way to make this work,” he told senators.

Gruters told SRQ after the hearing that he wants to make Amtrak more profitable, and that if he can prove better rail connecting the Gulf Coast to the national train network would be viable, he'll try to make that happen. "There are so many snowbirds coming from the Midwest and the Northeast down to Florida," he says. "Now it [Amtrak] goes to Orlando. Why not an expansion into Southwest Florida? If it needs more profitable routes, this is a destination people want to come to. If we can expand alternative transportation options with rail, I'm all on board."

President Trump appointed Gruters to the Amtrak board in February, and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a confirmation hearing Wednesday. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, serves as the ranking Democrat on the committee, and stressed the importance of the train service to the state both he and Gruters call home. “Florida relies on having reliable, on-time long-distance service to the state,” Nelson said in an opening statement. He also made note that since Hurricane Katrina struck the region in 2005, there’s been no Amtrak service in the Florida Panhandle, where a route connecting from New Orleans to Jacksonville once made numerous stops.

During questioning from U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, on that route, Gruters said he’s heard requests since his appointment to speak to leaders from towns along that former route. “It’s important to them to get this particular trail up and running,” Gruters said. As an accountant, he said he hopes he could find financial efficiencies that would help in that mission. He also accepted an invitation from Wicker to ride Amtrak in Mississippi with the senator and discuss the importance of the service with riders there.

Following questions from U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, and Maria Cantrell, D-Washington, Gruters promised to enforce safety standards at Amtrak, which had four fatal train crashes over a two-month span earlier this year. Gruters praised current Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson for hiring a chief safety officer tasked with enforcing new safety protocols.

The appointment marks a major foray into national politics for Gruters, who currently serves in the Florida House of Representatives and is running for state Senate. Gruters previously worked for U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R- Sarasota, and serves as chairman for the Republican Party of Sarasota. Perhaps most relevant to the Amtrak appointment, he served on the Florida State University board of trustees as finance and audit chairman. Gruters served as co-chair for Trump’s presidential campaign in Florida.

U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, introduced Gruters to the Senate subcommittee today and stressed Gruters history of community and political leadership. “President Trump is fortunate to have an appointment of Joe’s caliber willing to serve,” Rooney said.

Amtrak has train stations in Tampa, Clearwater and Sebring, and connects to public service that runs through Sarasota and Manatee. The eight members of its board of directors get appointed by the Presidents and require Senate confirmation. While technically a private corporation, the federal government is the only investor for Amtrak.

Amtrak service map.

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