Opinion

Congress asleep at the wheel with Amtrak

The train derailment in Philadelphia that killed eight and left scores injured is a nearly perfect metaphor for the state of the nation's decrepit infrastructure: an accident waiting to happen while the responsible parties -- the nation's lawmakers -- are asleep at the wheel.

Congress has consistently shortchanged Amtrak, and this tragedy is unlikely to shake Capitol Hill out of its torpor. House Republicans cut more than $1 billion from President Obama's $2.45-billion Amtrak funding request the day after the derailment, which would leave it $251 million below current spending levels.

But Congress hasn't just neglected the nation's passenger railroad -- it has ignored the entire transportation system and the nation's roadways, too. The Highway Trust Fund, the main source of funding for the highway system, has been shrinking for more than 20 years and is nearly insolvent.

The fund no longer can provide the resources needed to meet the needs of drivers who use America's roads and bridges, but Congress stubbornly refuses to focus on finding a meaningful, long-term solution. The fund faces two impending deadlines: Its authority will expire at the end of this month and, even if that can be extended, it will go broke by August unless lawmakers come up with a fresh source of funds.

So here is Congress' immediate (and utterly inadequate) solution: Sometime this week, the House is expected to vote on a two-month (!) extension of the nearly depleted fund to avoid the crisis. In other words, they're going to kick the can down the road, but not very far. After that, lawmakers promise, they'll come up with something better.

Don't count on that. Over the past seven years, Congress has spent about $50 billion in temporary funding just to maintain the current level of spending, without fixing the real problem: the inadequacy of the Highway Trust Fund. It's funded by gas taxes paid by drivers, and it has been stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. Since then, its real value has declined by 36 percent, according to The Tax Foundation.

The temporary patches make it next to impossible for state and local governments to plan long-term construction projects. Plus, the funding is insufficient to meet current and future needs. The result is that the United States ranks about 28th in the world in infrastructure. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said earlier this month, "We ought to be embarrassed as a country" about the state of the nation's infrastructure. He's right.

The shame of it is that there are perfectly sound solutions available. One is to index the tax to inflation because the current system does not respond to price changes. Another is the Obama administration's plan to tax overseas corporate profits at a 14-percent rate to generate revenue.

Not surprisingly, Republicans have balked at a funding plan that includes taxes. But there are yet more plans. One, from a GOP senator, calls for a national infrastructure bank with federal guarantees for loans to states.

We think inflation indexing is the best alternative. If Republicans can get over ideological objections to raising taxes, we can fill in the potholes, repair the crumbling bridges and get the roads we need.

Meanwhile, it's past time for Congress to also acknowledge that Amtrak is an integral part of the nation's transportation system and fund it accordingly. Lawmakers need to go the last mile to ensure that riders are safe and that the funding needs of America's passenger railroads are met.

  Comments