Thursday, May 14, 2015

Living In The Eisenhower Era

You are no doubt aware of the fate of Amtrak Train #188. Traveling at 106 miles per hour the commuter train entered a sharp curve at twice the posted speed limit. All seven cars derailed killing 7 and injuring 146.

What you may not know is that mere hours after this tragic accident occurred the Republican led House Appropriations Committee voted 30-21 to reduce Amtrak funding by $252 million dollars…a 15% cut from last year’s funding. The vote stands in stark contrast to the White House recommendation to increase the Amtrak funding from $1.4 to $2.4 billion.

For over 40 years the NTSB lobbied congress to approve a nationwide automated safety system for the country’s railways. The system uses sensors, mapping, satellites and GPS coordinates to automatically slow down or stop trains that are entering into harm’s way.

In 2008, after a tragic train wreck very similar to the circumstances surrounding Amtrak Train #188, congress finally adopted the NTSB’s proposal for a Positive Train Control (PTC) system; allowing the industry 7 years to comply. The deadline is December 31, 2015. But members of congress have joined railway lobbyists in seeking more time.

Due to a lack of funding the railroad industry has struggled to install the system. While the PTC system is up and functioning in various locales across the country it was not in place in the section where Amtrak #188 met its fate. The NTSB has said that the PTC system in all likelihood would have prevented this week’s tragedy from happening. No matter…yesterday the House Appropriations Committee rejected a measure that would have provided $800 million to speed up completion of PTC. What the hell…fiscal conservatism trumps safety any day! Right!

The little game of transportation Russian roulette that congress is playing is not limited to PTC and the commuter train industry.

Last week I commented about the increasing number of oil tanker car explosions that have been occurring. The need to distribute our nation’s new found oil wealth has resulted in an explosion (pun intended) in the number of oil tanker car derailments. Billions of gallons of highly flammable and toxic crude loaded in flimsy, outdated and unsafe tankers cars, are being transported right through the middle of towns and villages all across our country. When these cars derail they produce an enormous explosion and fireball that local communities are ill-equipped to handle. Add the resulting ecological and economic loss and you have one very expensive mess. Congress finally ordered the rail industry to replace the outdated equipment with new models that are exponentially safer and naturally more expensive. They have 15 years to comply. The oil industry is pushing back hard because any increase in shipping costs has a direct negative effect on their bottom line profits.
And then there are the bridges…

A few years ago I wrote about a bridge in my town that spans the Ohio River called the Brent Spence Bridge. Because the bridge sits at the confluence of Interstates 71 and 75 it serves as a major connector for commerce traveling from Michigan and the Great Lakes through the Deep South to the ports and refineries on the Gulf. 17% of our nation’s commerce crosses this bridge each day. The US Department of Transportation has classified the bridge as “functionally obsolete” and notes that the crash rate from 1995-2003 was one of the highest among the nation’s “functionally deficient” bridges.

The 52 year old bridge is outdated, crumbling, dangerous an inefficient. It is also a key component of our nation’s infrastructure.
Plans to replace the bridge were first discussed in 2008. In 2011 President Obama used the Brent Spence as the backdrop for an important speech on creating jobs and rebuilding our infrastructure.
The cost of replacement…$2.5 billion. As of this writing the plans are still in the preliminary stages. Estimated cost of the delay…$189 million.

We are really good at analyzing things and defining specific problems. But when it comes to bold forward thinking…looking to the future…acting rather than re-acting…not so much.

We are also very, very good at developing well thought out and creative ways of fixing problems. But we get bogged down in political minutia when it comes to putting those plans into effect.

If we truly want to be a World Class Country with a World Class Economy then we need to set special interests aside and build a World Class Infrastructure.

We cannot be an “exceptional” nation as long as we allow ourselves to be hamstrung by an infrastructure crafted in the Eisenhower Era.

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