This week’s horrific Amtrak accident just outside Philadelphia served as a grim reminder of our country’s political and economic challenges concerning infrastructure development. It perhaps gained even more attention than other recent safety failures because the business, media, and political elite use the Northeast Corridor so regularly (think of Vice President Biden’s frequent train trips home to Delaware when he was a Senator).
The accident’s timing truly could not have been worse for our political leadership. Precisely as NTSB investigators and first responders were combing through the wreckage, Congress was debating cuts to Amtrak’s budget and to overall transportation spending, as well as another emergency patch to the Highway Trust Fund in lieu of a real, long-term funding solutions. Even more troubling, news reports revealed congressional consideration to extend by years the deadline (now at the end of 2015) for full implementation of the “Positive Train Control” system that on-scene experts stated unequivocally would have prevented the 188 derailment.
Details obtained through the train’s data recording system further highlighted the shortcomings of what is supposedly the crown jewel of the United States’ passenger rail network. Investigators revealed that the train entered a curve approaching 106 miles-per-hour, when the safe posted speed for that stretch of track was half that reading. Why the train’s engineer did not notice this anomaly sooner will be the subject of intense scrutiny. But, as Rachel Maddow suggested in a lengthy and emotional report, the fact that such curves still exist on America’s so-called “high-speed corridor” just points out how poorly we compare to European and Asian countries where passenger trains travel (safely) at average speeds three times as high.
Until Americans begin voting with their pocketbooks, we may be sadly doomed to a repeat of these sorts of incidents on our rails, highways and bridges, ports, and airports.
Is it a lack of money? Budget deficits from the early part of the century led to extreme political action (or inaction), from government shut-downs to sequestration. But opinion polls continue to show wide support for responsible increased infrastructure spending, even if it means raising the gasoline tax.
Is it a lack of confidence in how the government spends tax revenue? Perhaps. But audits of the $25 billion spent through the Recovery Act for highway projects around the country found virtually no instances of fraud, waste or abuse. The federal government has proven that well-planned and vigilant oversight can reduce, if not virtually eliminate, wasteful infrastructure spending.
Is it an overall lack of faith in the federal government? Not with respect to infrastructure. The few extreme voices supporting “devolution” of the national transportation system by eliminating the federal gas tax and sending all funds directly to the states, for example, have been drowned out by conservative leaning organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Even leaders from Utah, one of the reddest states in the Union, have testified in favor of the continued role of the federal government in maintaining and building a national transportation system.
Is it a lack of vision, or a willingness to accept the status quo? That would be the saddest conclusion of all.
Americans, from our very founding, have believed in what could be, not in all the obstacles preventing us from collectively achieving great things. Without question, the path to progress has often come with a high price, from the relocation of native populations in the 19th century, to the displacement of certain poor neighborhoods to make way for the Interstate highway system in the 20th century. We must have the wisdom, however, to learn from our past mistakes so that we can enjoy future progress with fewer adverse environmental and socio-economic impacts. We must also reconcile the critical need to rebuild our infrastructure with our willingness to endure the costs of such investments.
Some have laid the blame for the current inertia over infrastructure investment on the doorsteps of Congress. I fear that is all too convenient. We are the ones who elect our politicians. We can also tell them that enduring tragedies like the Amtrak 188 disaster is no longer tolerable. John F. Kennedy used this famous phrase to describe America’s commitment to international liberty: “…we will pay any price, we will bear any burden in the defense of freedom.” Now, finally, is the time for all of us to demonstrate the same resolve when it comes to rebuilding our nation.
The memory of those we just lost demands nothing less.