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Congress: Get Rail Funding Back on Track | Commentary

By Karen E. Torrent The very next day after the deadly Philadelphia Amtrak crash, House lawmakers voted to slash Amtrak’s funding — including money for safety upgrades — by 18 percent. When a reporter began to ask about Amtrak being underfunded, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, in cutting off the reporter, called the question “stupid,” implying there was no connection between the Amtrak crash and Amtrak funding.  

Boehner’s “stupid” comment aside, whether or not starvation funding contributed to the Philadelphia Amtrak crash, we shouldn’t wait for the next deadly accident caused by unfunded maintenance and modernization of the nation’s 50-100 year old transportation and infrastructure system. Little appreciated is that unlike roads or transit that each receives 15 cents and 3 cents respectively of the insufficient 18 cent gas tax on a gallon of gasoline, passenger rail in the U.S. has no specific funding source other than what Congress chooses to appropriate or not.  

The May 12 Philadelphia derailment — killing 8 and hospitalizing 145 passengers — was just one of the serious transportation and infrastructure accidents in less than 150 days so far this year:  

• May 16, 2015: Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Amtrak locomotive catches on fire, 51 passengers evacuated.  

• May 13, 2015: Washington D.C., Metro electrical fire causes evacuations and shuts system down, stranding thousands of passengers.  

• February 10, 2015: Suitland, Maryland, Capital Beltway overpass drops loose concrete onto car, narrowly missing driver.  

• January 19, 2015: Washington D.C., Metro electrical fire kills one passenger and injures 80.  

The tragic irony is that May 11-15 was “Infrastructure Week” in Washington D.C. bringing business, industry, labor and academia, in rare common cause, to lobby Capitol Hill to pass a multi-year bill fully funding our transportation and infrastructure. Nevertheless, on May 13, in a narrow party line vote on funding for fiscal 2016, Republicans on the appropriations committee rejected their pleas claiming they were hamstrung by self-imposed austerity levels. The vote ignored the fact that last year, 31 million of their constituents rode Amtrak all over the country and took 10.8 billion trips on public transportation, the most in 58 years — with the biggest gains in small- and medium-size towns.  

Here’s the bigger problem: Just prior to the May 31 expiration of the law that provides federal funding for our public transportation, roads, bridges and rails, known as MAP21, Congress once again chose the political highway of excuses. Instead of making the tough choice to adopt a new long-term funding mechanism that would fix and maintain our outdated roads, bridges and transit, now $818 billion in arrears, and also invest in needed future projects, Congress passed a 60 day extension — the 21st extension in 12 years.  

The impact? Once again, states and municipal planning authorities are forced to lurch from one expiration date to another, not knowing when or how much federal money will be available to maintain and fix infrastructure. The consequences of yet another extension are dramatic and costly:  

• 25 percent of U.S. bridges are structurally deficient—in 97 percent of all congressional districts. • 65 percent of America’s major roads are rated in less than good condition. • 50 percent of U.S. electric transmission lines and pipelines that carry oil and natural gas were built in the 1950s and need to be replaced and upgraded. • 45 percent of Americans, in rural as well as urban areas, lack access to public transit.  

The state of our country’s transportation and infrastructure is often overlooked and ignored — until tragedy occurs or we grouse about horrible commutes, roads that destroy our cars, or the lack of public transit options. Before the situation worsens, future disasters occur, and our economy suffers because our businesses cannot deliver goods and services, let’s urge Congress to stop kicking the can down the crumbling road and pass a long term sustainably funded surface transportation bill.  

Karen E. Torrent is the Environmental Law and Policy Center’s federal legislative director and lead on federal transportation policy issues. She is a former trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, and majority staff counsel for the US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce.

 
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