No, Boehner, Amtrak Funding-Derailment Link Is Not A Stupid Question

Isaiah J. Poole

As I wrote on Wednesday, conservatives don’t want anyone to draw connections between this week’s fatal Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia and their years’-long opposition to adequate funding for the passenger service.

So it was not surprising to hear House Speaker John Boehner respond with derision to a reporter’s question about Amtrak funding in the wake of the derailment. “Are you really going to ask such a stupid question?” he said, according to the Associated Press.

But it’s not a stupid question at all – even with the National Traffic Safety Board confirmation that the train was going around a curve at more than twice the recommended speed when it went off the tracks.

Boehner’s protestation – “Obviously it’s not about funding. The train was going twice the speed limit” – misses the larger point that I made Wednesday and which Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard University professor, makes in an excerpt of her latest book, “Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead,” posted on Salon.

Kanter writes that Amtrak and passenger rail generally has “an infrastructure deficit almost unparalleled in the world.” She notes that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates the United States must invest an additional $230 billion between 2015 and 2030 to restore its rail infrastructure to a level of global competitiveness. She adds that rail’s share of U.S. federal transportation funding, which was almost 5 percent in the late 1970s, is now down to 1 percent. Highways get 80 percent; aviation gets about 19 percent.

That level of disinvestment affects the ability of Amtrak to rapidly deploy such safety measures as positive train control, which if it had existed at that particular section of track could have automatically slowed the train if it detected excessive speed. It also affects the ability of Amtrak to rebuild sections of track where curves are too sharp to sustain higher-speed (and safer) service.

In its infrastructure report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that in the Northeast Corridor alone, Amtrak and the eight commuter railroads that use the corridor would need to spend “about $10 billion over the next 15 years to achieve a state of good repair and to increase train capacity by 40 percent.” The appropriations bill approved earlier this week for Amtrak allotted the agency just over $1 billion for its entire system – just enough to keep the trains rolling, but with no real support for doing better. The rail safety line item wasn’t even adjusted upward for inflation from last year.

It would be easy to lay this tragedy at the feet of a train engineer who, for a reason yet to be determined, allowed the train to careen into a turn at far-to-fast a speed. But to stop there and not question the funding priorities and policy decisions that Republican lawmakers have been pushing since the days of Ronald Reagan would be the more consequential act of stupidity.

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