Michael Smerconish: Amtrak catastrophe highlights nation’s embarrassing abandonment of infrastructure needs
By Michael Smerconish
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Regardless of any human error, it didn’t have to happen. That’s the takeaway from the Amtrak 188 catastrophe.
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Even if evidence suggests that the engineer caused the train to travel 106 mph in a 50 mph zone, technology has existed for years that could have prevented this accident. But like so much of our needed infrastructure repairs, it'll be a day late and dollar short.
The Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System, a form of which is called Positive Train Control technology, could have ensured that eight deaths and more than 200 injuries didn’t occur, but it has yet to be installed in the critical area in Philadelphia where Amtrak 188 jumped the tracks while traversing a significant curve. This form of PTC has existed for years and was supposed to have been installed throughout the Northeast Corridor by the end of this year, but that still might not happen given that several bills which could delay implementation are currently pending in Congress.
Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board who is investigating the crash, could not have been more clear when on Wednesday he said: “And so we have called for Positive Train Control for many, many years. It’s on our most-wanted list. Congress has mandated that it be installed by the end of this year. So we are very keen on Positive Train Control. Based on what we know right now, we feel that had such a system been installed in this section of track, this accident would not have occurred.”
That observation is no surprise to former Gov. Ed Rendell, who had infrastructure on the brain since the train left the tracks. While carefully saying the cause of the accident was still not fully known, the morning after he shared with me what he believed to be the deficiency in our current design.
“We need a dedicated high-speed rail line, that is straight as an arrow, that has no other trains on it, no commuter trains, no freight trains, and we’ve gotta pay for it,” he said. “People understand in life, you get what you pay for. If you buy a $10,000 car, you don’t get a car as good as a $30,000 car. It’s as simple as that.”
Rendell cited statistics from the World Economic Forum that he said speak to America’s slippage in our worldwide standing with regard to infrastructure. “We’re behind countries like Malaysia. It’s a disgrace. It’s an embarrassment,” he said. “And when a tragedy like this happens, for two weeks people will say, ‘Well, we’ve gotta do something about it, we’ve gotta do something about it,' and then when it comes time, we’re back to normal.”
The lack of resolve that concerns the former mayor of Philadelphia is supported in one assessment of the 2016 contenders for president. As of the time of the Amtrak 188 crash, eight major-party candidates had declared their presidential ambitions. Each has an official website, and five of them addressed issues on their site. Only one – Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., – offered anything regarding infrastructure. (Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, gave examples of his voting record, none of which included votes on infrastructure. Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina had yet to publish their platforms online.) Sanders touted his recent sponsorship of a six-year, $478 billion infrastructure investment that was defeated in a Senate vote, 52-45.
Had you visited RandPaul.com/issues at the time of the crash, you would have seen his stance on enforcing term limits for “career politicians.” Over at MarcoRubio.com/issues, there was information about why he thinks defense spending must grow. BenCarson.com/issues displayed the political neophyte’s belief that Gitmo should remain open.
Indeed, each of the GOP contenders offers a view regarding Second Amendment rights, cutting the federal debt, and support for Israel, and plenty have had something to say on the stump about the Founding Fathers. But like most of their Democratic counterparts, when it comes to the foundation upon which our nation is built – roads, bridges and dams – there has been silence up until now.
Here’s something equally scary: In comparison to other aspects of our infrastructure, rail is not so bad. In its most recent (2013) ranking, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. infrastructure an overall assessment of D-plus. Our rail system warranted a C-plus, and all of the following received lesser evaluations: roads, airports, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, ports, public parks and recreation, schools, transit and wastewater.
Given that menu, Rendell is most concerned about roadways. “By 2040, there will be 30 million cars more on I-95 if we don’t do something about it. Can you imagine I-95 with 30 million new cars?”
Like everything else, many seek to use infrastructure to further the partisan divide. And it’s true that the Amtrak accident occurred while the House Appropriations Committee was in the midst of cutting Amtrak’s funding to $1.13 billion from roughly $1.4 billion, despite ridership reaching an all-time high in 2014 along the Northeast Corridor. According to the Brookings Institution, Amtrak’s ridership increased by 55 percent from 1997 to 2013 and continues to reach annual record highs.
“The Republican budget will cut the transportation funding in general, not just Amtrak, by 22 percent,” Rendell said. “Cut? This is a time when we ought to be investing in a long-term 10-year infrastructure vitalization program for the country, for public safety, for economic competitiveness, for the middle-class well-paying jobs that we’d create, for so many different reasons, but everyone is scared to vote for revenue.”
He’s right. But there’s plenty of blame to go around. Neither party is immune from dereliction of its duty when it comes to our infrastructure. Hopefully a renewed focus on our core concerns will be a positive outcome from a national embarrassment.
“How much more of this are we going to put up with in the United States of America?” Rendell asked.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is host of “Smerconish” on CNN. Readers may contact him at www.smerconish.com
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