by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
May 21, 2015
WHO WILL SAVE OUR NATION'S CRUMBLING INFRASTUCTURE?
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Republicans hate the idea of spending money on anything other than bombing countries we don't like and tax breaks and subsidies for the wealthy and corporations.
So, naturally, a day after a horrific derailment of a Amtrak train in Philadelphia on May 12 left eight people dead and more than 200 hurt, the House Appropriations Committee voted to cut $251 million in funding for Amtrak.
There has been a steady increase in Amtrak derailments, with nine in the first two months of this year. And given the lack of funding to upgrade and replace aging infrastructure, it's a miracle there aren't more.
More than 750,000 people ride on 2,000 trains operated by Amtrak and eight other commuter rail operators on the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington. Total ridership in fiscal year 2014 on the Northeast Corridor was 11.6 million, the most in Amtrak's history.
It's the busiest, most-used segment of Amtrak, but as with the rest of the railroad, it is being asked to do more with less.
Half of the 1,000 bridges on the route are more than a century old. The overhead electric wires that power locomotives between New York and Washington date back to the 1930s. Much of the passenger car fleet dates back to the 1970s and 1980s.
Increased ridership combined with decreased funding for maintenance and repair equals more breakdowns, more delays, and more accidents. And, coincidentally, the Senate failed to vote Friday night on an extension of funding for our vast infrastructure.
There's a backlog of repairs expected to cost more than $4 billion by fiscal 2019, yet total federal funding for Amtrak is about $1.4 billion a year. By comparison, the Chinese government is spending $128 billion this year on rail.
Japan's high-speed trains have a top speed of 313 mph, while Amtrak's lone high-speed train, the Acela, averages about 68 mph between Washington and Boston.
Fast trains that are clean, comfortable, and reliable are the norm in Europe and Asia, but we have a passenger rail system that is an embarrassment compared to the rest of the world.
Why? Every other country in the world subsidizes its rail service because it is a public good. Yet Congress continues to insist that Amtrak operate at a profit, something that no other rail system on earth is expected to do.
The Highway Trust Fund and the Federal Aviation Administration get about 45 times the subsidies that Amtrak gets. Without federal money, the Interstate Highway System and most of the airports in the United States would never have been built.
Once upon a time, our nation had a rail network that was the envy of the world. Since the 1950s, we have allowed that network to deteriorate while pumping money into highways and airports that siphoned business away from the railroads.
Now our highways and airports are hopelessly congested, which is why millions have switched to rail travel - despite all the aggravations, dangers and delays.
While the bullet trains over Japan and Europe are nice, most Americans would settle for service at the level it was in the 1940s, when trains were plentiful and just about every corner of America was served.
But our present politics won't allow this to happen. Thanks to the prevailing philosophy in Washington that spending money for public needs is tantamount to socialism, our nation is crumbling all around us.
At a time when interest rates have been at record lows, our government has refused to borrow to pay to repair and upgrade public infrastructure.
At a time when the share of federal taxes paid by the wealthy and corporations is at record low levels, Congress refuses to ask those that have to pay a little more to repair and upgrade the public infrastructure they benefit from.
As a result, spending on infrastructure is a meager 1.9 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, compared to 5 percent for the European Union and 9 percent in China.
We used to be a country that built big things - like the Erie Canal, the transcontinental railroad, and the Interstate highway system. We used to amaze the world with tremendous feats of engineering.
Now we shrug our shoulders while our nation becomes increasingly hollowed-out and unable to do even the simple things, and wonder if we are slouching toward oblivion.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and is an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.