In some ways, infrastructure upkeep – roads, bridges, rail lines, and all the other systems that keep us and the economy moving – is like dental flossing. Everyone says it’s important, but it’s not very exciting or (to most of us) even interesting.
But when things go wrong – like last week’s deadly Amtrak derailment – then it becomes the focus of public and political attention.
Investigators are methodically looking for the reason or reasons why Train 188 suddenly accelerated to more than 100 miles an hour as it approached a 50 mile-per-hour curve near Philadelphia, jumping the tracks and ending in a twisted jumble of cars that killed eight passengers and injured more than 200.
Authorities were quick to order improvements to the rail line’s infrastructure, including immediate implementation of the Positive Train Control System, which can automatically slow or stop a train, for northbound trains (already in place for southbound trains); analyzing the risks in all curves along the Northeast Corridor and implementing the appropriate technology “immediately”; and increasing wayside signage alerting engineers and conductors of the maximum authorized speed throughout the corridor.
In a piece headlined “America's premier rail superhighway is slowly falling apart,” the Associated Press reports that “the rails of the Northeast Corridor are decaying, increasingly strained – and moving more people than ever around the nation's most densely populated region.”
“The trains that link global centers of learning, finance and power on the East Coast lumber through tunnels dug just after the Civil War, and cross century-old bridges that sometimes jam when they swing open to let tugboats pass,” according to the AP. “Hundreds of miles of overhead wires that deliver power to locomotives were hung during the Great Depression…. By one estimate, it would take $21 billion just to replace parts still in use beyond their intended lives.”
"The stakes are enormous," Amtrak's president, Joseph Boardman, warned in his 2015 request to Congress for funding. He said the corridor was experiencing a "crisis brought on by decades of chronic underfunding."
It’s not just the nation’s rail system.
Using US Department of Transportation figures, the data-analytics company Transit Labs reported last week that nearly all congressional districts (430 of 435) have “structurally deficient” bridges. Fifty congressional districts have more than 300 structurally deficient bridges, and another 133 districts have 80-300 such bridges, according to this calculation.
(Federal law requires states to inspect their bridges at least 20 feet long every two years. Bridges are rated from 0-9, with 9 being the best. Federal guidelines classify bridges as “structurally deficient” if one of three components holding up the bridge – deck, superstructure, or substructure – is given a 4 or less.)
In congressional testimony last February regarding the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Bill, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx warned that investment in the nation’s transportation network “fails to keep pace with our growing economy and population.”
“The costs of inadequate infrastructure investment are exhibited all around us,” Secretary Foxx said. “Americans spend 5.5 billion hours in traffic each year, costing families more than $120 billion in extra fuel and lost time. American businesses pay $27 billion a year in extra freight transportation costs, increasing shipping delays and raising prices on everyday products. Also, 65 percent of our Nation’s roads are in less than good condition; one in four bridges require significant repair or can’t handle current traffic demands and 45 percent of Americans lack access to basic transit services. Underinvestment impacts safety too. There were over 32,000 highway traffic fatalities in 2013, and roadway conditions are a significant factor in approximately one-third of them.”
It’s a theme the White House has been emphasizing as well.
“Twenty-first-century businesses need 21st-century infrastructure: modern ports, and stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest Internet,” Mr. Obama said in his State of the Union address in January. “Let’s do it. Let’s get it done.”
President Obama’s proposed budget includes a six-year, $478 billion infrastructure plan reflecting a 33 percent increase in new public works projects to be paid for by new taxes on overseas earning by American companies.
Obama returned to this theme in his initial comments about last week’s Amtrak accident
"Until we know for certain what caused this tragedy, I just want to reiterate what I have already said: That we are a growing country, with a growing economy," Obama said at a Camp David press conference two days after the derailment. "We need to invest in the infrastructure that keeps us that way and not just when something bad happens like a bridge collapse or a train derailment but all the time. That's what great nations do."