The pictures and the stories that have been coming out of Philadelphia's Frankford section since 9:21 p.m. last night have been truly gut-wrenching. One minute they were speeding through the heart of Philly, many of them on their way home -- a young Navy midshipman visiting his mom, a woman balancing motherhood and running a high-tech start-up, a software engineer -- and seconds later at least seven of them are gone, while many others survived an ordeal they will never forget. Our hearts go out to the passengers of Amtrak 188 and their loved ones.
By definition, a tragic accident is an event that didn't have to happen. It's not surprising that the dueling issues coming into focus -- personal responsibility vs. the failings of a once-proud society -- in the Amtrak disaster are the same issues we talk about in so many other contexts. Should we race to assign all of the blame to the train operators going 106 mph in a 50 mph zone? How do we account for our declining spending on rail structure, including the lag in installing the technology that would have saved those seven lives but which wasn't in place on that northbound curve? How can America proclaim itself an exceptional nation when its leading "high-speed" rail corridors still has stretches that are slower than the adjacent interstate?
Ironically, the New York Times published an op-ed this morning from Democratic (or "leftist," as I heard him described on talk radio today) mayor Bill De Blasio of NYC and not-rightest-enough (I'm guessing) GOP mayor Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City regarding infrastructure. It's definitely timely:
Federal investment has not kept pace with this demand, resulting in an outdated, overburdened surface transportation system that is ill equipped to handle current, let alone future, need. Spending on infrastructure in the United States has sunk to 1.7 percent of gross domestic product, a 20-year low.
The Department of Transportation estimates that by 2030, it will cost $84 billion to $105 billion a year just to keep the highway, bridge and transit systems in good repair, and up to $170 billion a year to improve conditions and performance.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world races ahead. Europe spends 5 percent of G.D.P. on infrastructure, and China 9 percent. Global cities like London and Beijing are investing in transit and rail projects on a vast scale, while in New York City, more than 160 bridges were built over a century ago, and large portions of our subway's signal system are more than 50 years old. Some of the subway cars we ride in were built before 1975.
Needless to say, the chatter I overheard about this op-ed on conservative talk radio was apoplectic -- too soon to talk about this (that's what they always say, isn't it?) and "liberals using a crisis as an excuse to throw money around.") Perhaps, but I'm old enough to remember when the Hoover Dam or the George Washington Bridge put some real meat on the argument that America is an exceptional nation. What's so exceptional about starving our bridges and our rails down to Third World status? Regardless of what the probe into Amtrak 188 uncovers, better infrastructure -- including high-tech accident avoidance -- is common sense. But common sense doesn't seem to be enough anymore.