U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced Monday that his chief of staff, Sarah Feinberg, would be tapped as the country’s rail safety chief.
Feinberg will become acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration at a time when the Transportation Department is under pressure to finish new rules aimed at improving the safety of crude oil transported by rail.
“With her ability to bring clarity, focus and direction to complex challenges, she has become a proven leader within our agency,” Foxx said in a statement. “Sarah has the right mix of experience and skills to adeptly lead the FRA as it continues its important work to ensure the safe, reliable and efficient movement of people and goods.”
Feinberg succeeds Joseph Szabo, a career railroad worker and union official who led the agency since 2009.
Feinberg is the second woman to lead the agency in its 49-year history and the first since Ohio transportation official Jolene Molitoris led the agency in the Clinton administration.
Unlike past rail agency chiefs, however, Feinberg comes from a non-transportation background. Before joining the department in 2013, she handled crisis and corporate communications for Facebook and Bloomberg.
She’d also worked in the Obama White House as a special assistant to the president and senior adviser to then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who’s now the mayor of Chicago.
Her staff biography notes that she handled White House communications for key challenges in President Barack Obama’s first term, including the economic crisis, the H1N1 flu pandemic and the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in West Virginia.
Since coming to the Transportation Department, Feinberg has faced no shortage of tense situations. On the same day in July 2013, a crude oil train derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47, and a Boeing 777 flown by Asiana Airlines crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport, killing three.
The Quebec disaster prompted significant changes in train operating practices, track and equipment inspections, training for emergency responders and the design of the tank cars carrying crude oil.
The department has also been dealing with serious auto safety issues that have resulted in multiple recalls from General Motors, Toyota and other manufacturers, and hearings on Capitol Hill.
The department could face another crisis this spring when the federal Highway Trust Fund runs out of money in May. The fund is supported by revenue from the federal gasoline tax, which Congress has not increased since 1993.