All Rise

Dan Elliott ’89 Chairman, Surface Transportation Board

By Molly GrayThe Ohio State University Law School Magazine | Spring 2011


While growing up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Dan Elliott ’89 admittedly didn’t pay much attention to the vast system of trains and railroads that surround the greater Cleveland area. Today, Elliott can’t stop thinking about those rails – in Cleveland and around the country.

After harvesting a career in the field of labor law as associate general council for the United Transportation Union (UTU), Elliott was appointed in 2009 as chairman of the Surface Transportation Board (STB) in Washington, D.C. Both deal extensively with freight railroads.

“I was definitely hoping for a spot on the board,” Elliott said. “You try and present your name in front of the White House and, hopefully, if you are chosen you are nominated and go through the confirmation process.”

Elliott was nominated on June 20, 2009 by President Barack Obama to not only hold a spot on the board but to be chairman as well. Elliott was confirmed by the U.S. Senate later that summer and was sworn in Aug. 13, 2009. His term as chairman expires in December 2013.

The STB is an economic regulatory agency that is charged with resolving freight railroad disputes, proposed mergers, line purchases, constructions and abandonments. The majority of its work deals with Amtrak, the nation’s intercity rail operator.

Elliott, a native of Shaker Heights, Ohio, received his law degree from the Moritz College of Law after receiving an undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan, where he studied political science. Elliott had made a career in labor law representing the UTU, which is one of the unions that the STB works with frequently.

Elliott will be eligible for reappointment for a second term of up to five years. His current term is restricted to four years because he was appointed midway through the previous term. Chairman W. Douglas Buttrey stepped down from the board in March 2009.

Elliott said that he has two current goals for the STB. First, make the board as transparent as possible; and second, create more harmony between shippers and railroads throughout the United States.

“We have started oral arguments here so that parties can come and argue their case in front of the board,” Elliott said, which is one step toward a more open agenda. “We are also re-doing the web site … which will hopefully make the board more accessible.”

Elliott’s second goal requires effort from parties on both sides of the ball as he tries to “make more opportunities for shippers and railroads to come together and talk, whether it’s over cases or otherwise,” he said. “We really want the shippers to feel more comfortable in front of the board, like this is a place where they can come and talk to the chairman of the agency.”

Finding that delicate harmony between shippers and railroads has proven to be Elliott’s greatest challenge thus far, he said, but it has proved to be the most rewarding.

“I think the biggest challenge and achievement have been inter-related,” Elliott said. “We’ve tried to allow the shippers to be more comfortable before the board and we’ve done that by reaching out to them and meeting with them. I’ve really tried to be more engaged with the shippers.”

The board is also trying to rejuvenate the arbitration system and mediation groups that are in place to facilitate the relationship between shipping and transportation companies, such as the Rail Customer and Public Assistance program, which Elliott says has been successful.

Elliott’s day-to-day routine includes hearing briefings on cases and issues that are facing the transportation industry, presenting speeches to stakeholders and transportation groups, and visiting rail yards and large shippers in order to better understand who the agency services and their needs.

Elliott’s interest in labor law first started at Moritz when he took a class from Professor Charlie Wilson.

“I enjoyed labor law, and Professor Wilson put a little fire in me, a little inspiration,” Elliott said. “So when I saw the union job open up I leapt at it and it led to a career for me.” Prior to joining the union, Elliott worked at firms in both D.C., and Cleveland.

Wilson, who is an associate professor at Moritz, remembers Elliott as a “very conscientious and hard working student,” he said. “I am not one bit surprised that he has been highly successful.”

Elliott said that his work with the UTU, based in North Olmsted, Ohio, prepared him for the types of cases and work that he sees as chairman on a daily basis. He said that the knowledge base he gained makes him comfortable with the matters that are brought to the agency.

“I had quite a bit of experience before the board in matters that affected the union,” Elliott said. “But it’s a totally different world. There I was an attorney advocate for the union, more of a litigator, and here I am more of a judge.”

Despite staying busy with the UTU and moving back and forth between northern Ohio and D.C., Elliott has managed to keep in touch with his law school roommates.