Booker: Amtrak crash shows need for more spending on infrastructure




Allegations that Democrats are trying to politicize the deadly crash of an Amtrak train last week are a “distraction from reality,” Sen. Cory Booker said on national television Sunday morning, because the United States is falling behind other developed countries when it comes to investing in infrastructure.

Booker, the former Newark mayor who serves as the top Democrat on the Senate’s surface transportation subcommittee, said in an appearance on the NBC News program “Meet the Press” that while the United States invests just 1.5 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure – such as roads, bridges, transit, and water and sewer systems — China invests 9 percent, Japan 6 percent and Europe 5 percent.

The National Transportation Safety Board has said that Amtrak train 188 was accelerating to more than 100 miles an hour going into a curve with a speed limit of 50 mph when it crashed on Tuesday night in Philadelphia. Amtrak’s president said that an automatic system known as positive train control that would apply brakes to trains moving too fast would have prevented the crash, but that the system was not yet installed on that stretch of track.

“The United States of America is falling behind, dramatically, its global peers in terms of the quality of its infrastructure,” Booker said. “And the accident that we saw happen, which the NTSB says could have been prevented should we have had positive train control — we should not be scrimping on investments in public safety.”

A day after the crash, the House Appropriations Committee approved a spending bill for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 that would cut Amtrak’s subsidy by $252 million to $1.1 billion, an 18 percent cut. That bill still faces changes before it becomes law, however. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican from Harding in Morris County who voted for the bill with the Amtrak cuts, said Friday that the bill was a “work in progress” and he was confident it would be changed before final passage.

Amtrak has also said it was on schedule to meet a Dec. 31 deadline to install positive train control on the Northeast Corridor, a sign that the railroad had the funding needed for that job.

House Speaker John Boehner reacted angrily to a question last week about whether spending cuts were connected to the accident, accusing the media of accepting an argument that was not supported by facts. But Democrats, like Booker, are focusing on overall statistics that show funding for public works projects declining.

Booker is negotiating with Republicans on a separate bill that would set long-term funding and priority goals for Amtrak. The last multiyear spending bill, approved in 2008, was sponsored by Booker’s predecessor, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, and expired in 2013.

In March, the House also passed a bill that would authorize spending $5.3 billion on Amtrak from 2016 through 2020, about what is being spent now. That law would also direct Amtrak to use revenues generated on the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston to operate and maintain that service, instead of using it to subsidize less profitable service in other parts of the country.

“On the Senate side, we’re seeing some movement on the idea that we must invest in this precious asset that creates so many jobs, so much economic dynamism,” Booker said, arguing that funding for rail upgrades in the Northeast should appeal to economic conservatives.

“For every dollar you invest in things like the Northeast Corridor, passenger rail, you get about $2 back in economic growth and activity,” Booker said. “Any investor will take that and if we are stewards of American dollars and caretakers of this great infrastructure we inherited from our grandparents, we don’t want to pass it on to our children with an infrastructure debt.”