Thursday, May 14, 2015

Saving lives by infrastructure investment? "There's a lack of political will."

Let me start with this: Congress, by its austerity-driven inaction on infrastructure, is complicit in the deaths of 7 Amtrak riders. Prove me wrong. Here's some of the rest.

Investing in infrastructure is not glamorous and is an easy target for penny-pinching politicians. But it does keep the money on our shores, generates jobs for our citizens, and makes our nation run more efficiently and safely. Should be a no brainer, right? Here is John Nichols' take on some of that in the context of the recent Amtrak derailment

The cause of the crash is still being investigated. There are reports that the train was traveling too fast for a turn it had to make—raising issues of human error, safety protocols, unaddressed dangers, and the role that smart infrastructure investment might have played in making the route smoother and safer. The fact is that train crashes happen for a lot of reasons, some of which are difficult to control against. But there is no question that the role played by outdated and decaying infrastructure can be addressed by the federal government. Nor is there much question that one of the best ways to assure that human errors do not lead to disasters is by keeping equipment, track and systems up to date. Unfortunately, as a Bloomberg Business report explained Wednesday morning, "There's a lack of political will."

[Quoting two mayors, one D and one R, writing in the NY Times:] Federal investment has not kept pace with this demand, resulting in an outdated, overburdened surface transportation system that is ill equipped to handle current, let alone future, need. Spending on infrastructure in the United States has sunk to 1.7 percent of gross domestic product, a 20-year low. The Department of Transportation estimates that by 2030, it will cost $84 billion to $105 billion a year just to keep the highway, bridge and transit systems in good repair, and up to $170 billion a year to improve conditions and performance. Meanwhile, the rest of the world races ahead. Europe spends 5 percent of G.D.P. on infrastructure, and China 9 percent. Global cities like London and Beijing are investing in transit and rail projects on a vast scale, while in New York City, more than 160 bridges were built over a century ago, and large portions of our subway's signal system are more than 50 years old. Some of the subway cars we ride in were built before 1975. This isn't for want of local resources. Over the past decade, New York City has increased commitments to capital projects by 50 percent. But we could not do it all on the local level even if we wanted to.

In a prescient article published last month, National Journal asked, "Why Can't America Have Great Trains?"

The answer had a lot to do with politics—especially the politics of those whose determination to cut federal spending is as ardent as it is impractical.

France has great trains. They also have great French Fries. We have neither.

UPDATE: GOP aims to cut Amtrak budget. Of course. The derailment proves that Amtrak is inefficient and a waste of taxpayer money, right? This is the standard Tea Potty reasoning about everything. The United States will continue to lag way behind other industrialized countries in terms of its rail system so long as this stupid approach to investment runs amok in Congress. As the New Republic reports:

Republicans don’t view passenger rail as energy-efficient travel that could only exist with public funds, but a sign of government mismanagement. Mitt Romney, while campaigning in 2012, said, "The subsidy for Amtrak, I would eliminate that." But passenger rail, particularly the dream of bullet trains nationwide, is exactly the kind of project that necessitates government assistance—just like the transcontinental railroad did. Conservatives may liken it to a boondoggle, but California is constructing the nation's first bullet train, at an estimated cost of $68 billion, with federal subsidies making up $3.3 billion of the secured funding. Amtrak puts estimates of the amount needed for an East Coast high-speed rail route at upwards of $110 billion. The private sector won't take the risk on such a high startup cost. Yet, the House appropriations bill is clear: Not only does Amtrak receive less money, but "no funding is provided for high-speed rail."

What a short-sighted failure of national policy.

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