Transportation funding was going to get plenty of attention this week in Washington — even before an Amtrak train derailed about 140 miles to the north.
This is National Infrastructure Week, so lobbyists, labor leaders and activists started swarming Capitol Hill on Monday, seeking funds for roads, bridges and other projects related to transportation.
Then on Tuesday night, an Amtrak train crashed in Philadelphia, killing seven people and injuring scores of others.
On Wednesday morning, it looked as if the case for funding might have been strengthened by events in Philadelphia. They could argue that — no matter what investigators may find was the specific reason for the derailment — the tragedy offers a general warning that U.S. transportation systems have gotten outdated and dangerous.
Whether it involves trains, planes or automobiles, “our infrastructure is in terrible shape,” National League of Cities President Ralph Becker told NPR. Becker, who is the mayor of Salt Lake City, was in town to plead for more transportation funding. “Our infrastructure is failing.”
But Republican lawmakers holding the purse strings were not buying such arguments, at least about Amtrak.
The GOP-led House Appropriations Committee voted 30-21 in favor of legislation providing funds for transportation infrastructure and safety in fiscal 2016. But the measure contains a spending cut of $252 million for Amtrak — a decrease of about 15 percent from this fiscal year. The reduction would affect Amtrak’s capital spending, not operations.
The committee’s bill would have to be approved by the full House and Senate before it could take effect Oct. 1.
Committee Democrats unsuccessfully tried to amend the legislation to boost Amtrak funding by $1 billion, to $2.4 billion. “Starving rail of funding will not enable safer train travel,” Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., told the committee hours after the deadly derailment.
But Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, admonished Democrats: “Don’t use this tragedy in that way. It was beneath you.”
Becker, speaking for the National League of Cities, says mayors are frustrated with such congressional squabbling over transportation-related funding. Their message to lawmakers: “Get to work and get something done,” he said.
The city leaders are particularly concerned about the Highway Trust Fund, which collects and distributes money for federal highway and transit projects. The fund’s authorization expires at the end of this month. And the fund will run out of cash later this summer.
Becker’s group wants Congress to authorize at least six years of programs and funding so that mayors and governors can make long-term plans for improving mobility, he said.