Amtrak tragedy fuels Hill battle over transportation funding

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The tragic Amtrak derailment, which left seven people dead and more than 200 injured, already has become a divisive political issue on Capitol Hill, where some Democrats are pointing to the accident to push for increased funding for the government-subsidized railway.

As the House Appropriations Committee was marking up a 2016 transportation funding bill Wednesday, panel Democrats introduced an amendment to provide Amtrak with $2.45 billion. That's the funding requested in President Obama's budget -- but $1 billion more than what Republicans proposed.

"Yesterday's tragedy in Philadelphia should be a wake-up call to this committee -- we must provide sufficient funding for Amtrak's critical infrastructure projects to ensure a safer transportation system," said Rep David Price, D-N.C. "The majority's shortsighted, draconian budget cuts stand in the way of the investments that a great country must make."

Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., who represents the Philadelphia area where the train derailed and who led Democrats in offering the amendment, added, "We don't know the circumstances of this accident, we don't know what caused it, but we do know if we don't invest in the capital infrastructure of our country there will be future accidents. There will be people who you represent, or in your districts, who will be facing the same circumstances that the people who are in hospitals in my district are facing now."

Committee Democrats say the additional $1 billion would provide:

  • $550 million to bring Amtrak's North East Corridor infrastructure and equipment into a "state of good repair." 
  • $225 million to replace obsolete equipment in state-supported routes and help states pay for expenses. 
  • $475 million to improve Amtrak's backbone rail facilities and improve positive train control, technology used to override human error and stop trains in potential danger. 

Republicans, though, argued against what they described as a knee-jerk reaction, with the investigation still underway. Preliminary data suggests the train was going over 100 mph, in an area where the speed limit reportedly is half that.

"What we saw last night was a tragedy and we have to do everything we can to make sure it doesn't repeat itself, but we do not know the circumstances," Rep. Mario Diaz Balart, R-Fla., said. "The concept, however, that it is always, no matter what, more money that is a solution -- is not always the case."

Amtrak has faced an 11 percent drop in spending from Congress since the Republicans took control of the House in 2011. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the former chairman of the House transportation panel, has long tried to crack down on Amtrak.

"Even if I bought new equipment and put it on crummy infrastructure, you're going to have a safety problem," Mica said. "It's a Soviet-style train operation ... even the Russians are running high-speed rail."

Appropriations leadership aides called the amendment a "pie in the sky" proposal since it had no required spending offsets and would therefore bust budget caps.

It failed by a vote of 21-30.

The debate over Amtrak funding, however, is far from over. Another spending hike proposal for the railway is expected to return when the transportation bill hits the House floor in the coming weeks.

Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.