By Adam Benforado
On the first Monday of summer, nine people lost their lives when Train 112 careened into Train 214 on Washington's Red Line Metrorail. A mother of six, a nurse, a command pilot, and a contract laborer were among the dead. Some 80 others were injured.
This accident was tragic, shocking, and heart-rending, but it may not have been unpreventable. Until the National Transportation Safety Board completes its assessment, we will not know for sure what caused the crash, but initial evidence suggests that outdated equipment and malfunctioning systems played a significant role. As Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia, put it, "You've got old trains. You've got old tracks and old stations. ... There's a price for that."
There had been warning signs. After a 2004 crash in which Metro train cars collapsed into each other, the NTSB suggested strengthening the cars' frames. But plans for the repairs were abandoned because of a lack of funds.
More broadly, the accident was evidence of what experts have been warning us about for years: Our infrastructure is failing. We must act now to upgrade our roads, repair our bridges and levees, improve the electrical grid, and fix drinking-water and sewer pipes - or face further dire consequences in the near future.
Standing in the way are purported men of principle preaching "fiscal responsibility" - men like Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), who has made a political career out of fighting to eliminate "wasteful spending." Coburn's Senate Web site explains: "Employing his rights to object to secret spending and to hold and filibuster legislation, Dr. Coburn has single-handedly saved taxpayers billions of dollars by blocking more bills than any other senator."
Last month, Coburn released a report decrying "100 examples of questionable stimulus projects, worth $5.5 billion." For Coburn, money spent by the government is frequently money wasted. "Real stimulus," his report said, "includes lowering the tax and regulatory burden on hard-working families and businesses."
On a certain level, Coburn is right. There is waste in Washington. Members of Congress often pursue pet projects for their districts at the expense of the general population. Contractors sometimes operate without oversight. There are bridges to nowhere.
The problem is that there are also bridges to somewhere - bridges that are crumbling as hundreds of thousands of us drive across them every day.
Coburn's rhetoric doesn't tend to distinguish between the two. Its broad brush strokes depict a "bloated" federal budget filled with "wasteful, self-serving, and often corrupt pork-barrel spending." The national-debt ticker on Coburn's Web site climbs furiously, suggesting all government expenditures amount to money down the drain.
The danger is that blocking funding is portrayed as victimless. Coburn is able to enjoy the upside of fighting against waste without being connected to the eventual harm done when one of his filibusters or holds derails a critical project.
How many know or remember Coburn's history of vigorously blocking funding for Metro system repairs and upgrades? How many know that he complained just last year that his constituents have to pay for subway improvements even though "most taxpayers will never get to set foot in a Metro car that they helped pay for"? How many read his 2008 Washington Times op-ed claiming that "the biggest problem facing Metro may actually be too much federal funding"?
Coburn would never have wished for last week's awful subway tragedy, but he may be implicated in it. The senator needs to realize that when he stands up for the principle of opposing government spending, he may also be standing in the way of his professed desire to protect "all human life."
Some spending saves lives. And when Coburn filibusters spending bills, he puts the lives of thousands of innocents at risk.
As a Philadelphian, I am happy if my tax dollars help deliver safe drinking water to kids in Oklahoma City or ensure that commuters in Tulsa never have to experience the horror of a collapsed bridge. We are all Americans. I hope Coburn's constituents feel the same way.