An aerial photo of the wreckage from Amtrak Train 188. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

It’s time for Congress to think about infrastructure spending in a more urgent light.

After the last wrecked passenger cars were removed from the scene of Tuesday night’s Amtrak accident in Philadelphia, service along the Northeast Corridor returned to something like normal over the weekend. As of today, service is fully restored, and there are regular trains traveling between New York and Philadelphia.

Investigators have yet to discover what exactly led the engineer to approach a curve at high speeds. But even after the National Transportation Safety Board examines every piece of evidence, the debate over rail safety is unlikely to ever again be what it was one week ago.

In a statement, Joe Boardman, president and CEO for Amtrak, reiterated that the company is dedicated to implementing Positive Train Control throughout the Northeast Corridor by the December 31 deadline. PTC is a monitoring and communications system designed to stop railroad collisions and derailments caused by human error.

Amtrak has some ways to go in meeting the deadline set forth by Congress back in 2008; a map by the New York Times shows the 400 miles of rail line where Amtrak has implemented PTC along the corridor (and the 1,200 miles still remaining). But Amtrak is not the only rail provider still working to meet the congressional deadline. Far from it.

(Congressional Research Service)

This map shows the nation’s seven different Class I freight railroad operators, which altogether, own two-thirds of the nation’s roughly 140,000 miles of rail. The rest belongs to Class II (regional freight), Class III (short-line rail), and Amtrak (passenger service).

According to the Congressional Research Service, the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 requires Class I operators to implement PTC for about 70,000 miles of railroad (which would work out to about three-quarters of the rail highlighted on the map).

Rail operators are nowhere close to meeting the December 31 deadline. Well before the accident on Tuesday night, rail stakeholders—lawmakers, operators, unions, and the federal government—were arguing about how or whether to postpone the deadline. There’s no answer yet.

Now, we may see a new direction on this issue. Just as the Rail Safety Improvement Act was precipitated by a fatal train collision in 2008, last week’s tragic accident could spur lawmakers to take more decisive action. If and when they do—and that’s a big “if,” given the nature of congressional deadlock these days—they stand to change Amtrak (and vast swaths of U.S. freight rail) in big ways.

Infrastructure spending is, of course, the pressing long-term consideration. The overall state and local share of public infrastructure spending has soared since 1980, while the overall federal share has declined. This isn’t necessarily a disaster, but it is one of the main reasons that rail operators have struggled to implement PTC so far: it’s an unfunded mandate.

(Hamilton Project/Brookings Institute)

This week, researchers from Princeton University, Evercore, and the Bipartisan Policy Center released a paper arguing for specific reforms to infrastructure spending in the United States. Here are their recommendations at a glance:

In the short-term track, we propose (1) improving and expanding the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) lending program, (2) bringing back Build America Bonds (BABs), (3) using the Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps) and Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) in a more efficient way, and (4) indexing the federal gas tax so it varies with retail gasoline prices.

On the long-term track, we recommend (1) federal incentives and guidelines for the development and adoption of new technologies to collect user fees, (2) cooperation among states and municipalities to foster pooled procurement, and (3) development and implementation of a national strategy that calls for federal actors to commit themselves to a long-term plan for infrastructure investment in the United States.

Since Congress appears unwilling even to pass a budget, it seems unlikely that any of these near-term or long-term recommendations will come to light. Maybe the gravity of this accident will force Congress to think about infrastructure spending in a more urgent light. But it’s more likely that Congress will focus on the faults or mistakes implicated in the tragedy this week.

That could be a costly decision. A focus on the forcefulness of the PTC mandate may well divert attention from the lack of resources that prevents us, as a nation, from fulfilling the many mandates out there—some of which are very pressing.

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