How Defunding Derails Our Infrastructure

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How Defunding Derails Our Infrastructure

John Boehner claims public financing had nothing to do with the Amtrak disaster, but like so many others, it can be directly traced to funding shortfalls.

Emergency personnel work the scene of a deadly train wreck, Tuesday, May 12, 2015, in Philadelphia. (Photo: AP/Joseph Kaczmarek)

House Speaker John Boehner blew a gasket when a reporter asked him whether the Republicans’ refusal to adequately fund Amtrak might have played a role in the May 12 derailment of a Northeast Corridor train that killed eight people and injured more than 200.

“Are you really gonna ask such a stupid question? Listen, you know, they started this yesterday: ‘It’s all about funding. It’s all about funding.’ Well, obviously, it’s not about funding,” Boehner whined, before seizing on reports that the train “was going twice the speed limit” as it entered a turn in Philadelphia.

Boehner’s crude blame-laying didn’t seem very smart after it was reported later in the day that final implementation of a safety system to automatically slow down speeding trains had been delayed by budget shortfalls, bureaucracy, and the general absence of urgency with which official Washington greets even the most vital demands for infrastructure investment. The New York Times reported that the Federal Railroad Administration’s request for safety-technology funding “was ignored” by Congress. “Clearly, one of the hurdles that Amtrak has and the commuter rail industry has is that this is very expensive technology,” explained former FRA administrator Joseph Szabo. “It was never funded. The failure to invest in Amtrak’s capital program clearly has been a hindrance in more timely deployment. The way to make public rail a priority would be with public funding.”

Boehner’s folly was to presume that every transportation disaster is an either/or situation, in which the possibility of accident or human error immediately absolves austerity-obsessed legislators from any responsibility. It doesn’t work that way. Smart investments in infrastructure don’t just maintain the physical integrity of transportation systems; they pay for technological improvements that protect the lives of passengers and crew. These new technologies have caused accident rates to decline in recent years, yet many railway corridors are still awaiting them—no small matter when Amtrak derailments have jumped from two in 2012, to six in 2014, to nine in the first two months of 2015. Adequate funding also eases the pressure for staff cuts, which are a major safety concern for unions representing the workers of rail lines and urban mass-transit systems.

Just to keep up with infrastructure demands, Amtrak needs a huge hike in federal support. “Studies show it would take a staggering $21.1 billion investment to simply bring the Northeast Corridor’s infrastructure to a state of good repair,” says Chris Murphy, a member of a key Senate subcommittee on transportation. A month before the May 12 derailment, National Journal noted that the House had “agreed to fund Amtrak for the next four years at a rate of $1.4 billion per year. Meanwhile, the Chinese government—fair comparison or not—will be spending $128 billion this year on rail.”

It’s not just safety that’s being underfunded, and not just on rail lines. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s infrastructure a grade of D+ in 2013 and outlined the need for massive investment to bring things up to speed. Congress must recognize what New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, and Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, a Republican, recently noted: While US spending on infrastructure has collapsed to 1.7 percent of GDP, “the rest of the world races ahead. Europe spends 5 percent of G.D.P. on infrastructure, and China 9 percent.” Confronted by information and events that demand action, John Boehner keeps saying “it’s not about funding.” That’s stupid.

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