News analysis

Crash puts pressure on Trump to deliver on infrastructure

When President Donald Trump took to Twitter in reaction to a train crash in Washington state on Monday morning, it was to remind Americans of the country's increasingly creaky infrastructure - and a proposed US$1 trillion (S$1.35 trillion) infrastructure Bill.

The much-awaited Bill, reportedly approved by Mr Trump, may finally appear in Congress next month.

It will reportedly propose US$200 billion in federal money over the next decade to unlock, through incentives including grants and loans, another US$800 billion from local and state authorities and private entities.

"The train accident... shows more than ever why our soon-to-be-submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly," he tweeted.

"Seven trillion dollar(s) spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!"

It is not yet certain to what degree the crash that took three lives and left many injured can be attributed to infrastructural shortcomings or failure.

The Amtrak train was reportedly well over the speed limit for that section of the track. The derailment followed a multimillion-dollar track upgrade.

The investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board is still in its early stages. But the crash highlighted issues surrounding infrastructure in America - one of the President's pet subjects.

That it came on the heels of an 11-hour power outage at Atlanta International over the weekend, forcing the cancellation of more than 1,000 flights, only sharpened the message. Atlanta is the world's busiest airport and a Delta Airlines hub.

The train crash also shut down a part of Interstate 5, a major north-south artery for the West Coast. The train derailed south of Seattle on an overpass and part of it fell into the highway.

The incidents showed the domino effect of infrastructure failures, said Mr Brian Pallasch, managing director of government relations and infrastructure initiatives at the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

"This incident, and the incident the day before in Atlanta, shows the interdependence of pieces of infrastructure. Infrastructure is one of those things that we take for granted and we probably should not," he told The Straits Times.

The ASCE in its report card this year on America's infrastructure gave it a D+. Railways ironically scored the highest with a B. Airports, dams, drinking water, inland waterways, levees and transit infrastructure were all given Ds.

"Infrastructure is not meeting our needs and it is costing us daily," Ms Kristina Swallow, president of the ASCE, said at a conference earlier this month in Washington DC.

"We are seeing bridge failures, we are seeing water main breaks, we are seeing failure on a consistent basis, which is why the grades are so low. Many of our airports are at capacity," she said.

"Our population is growing, so our infrastructure needs are growing. What we have today is not going to meet the needs of tomorrow," she warned.

The Republican Party is expected to turn its attention to infrastructure after getting the tax Bill passed this week.

The tax Bill proposes innovative funding mechanisms for infrastructure projects. But the bad news, Mr Pallasch pointed out, was that "an opportunity in the tax Bill to find some revenue to pay for additional infrastructure... didn't happen".

In 2020, the Federal Highway Trust - which funds highway maintenance from tax dollars - will not be taking in as much money as it will need to spend, he added. "That also has to be fixed and at this point, it is not being fixed," he warned.

A 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse, which was attributed to a design defect and led to 13 deaths as vehicles tumbled into the river below, spurred a petrol tax to fund bridge maintenance.

Though it took months to institute the tax, it funded a 10-year plan to put more than US$2 billion into inspecting and repairing 172 old bridges.

Analysts hope the Amtrak crash, like the Minnesota tragedy 10 years ago, will catalyse efforts to spur safety improvements - and find the funding for them.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2017, with the headline 'Crash puts pressure on Trump to deliver on infrastructure'. Print Edition | Subscribe