News Analysis

Train crash puts pressure on Trump to deliver on infrastructure

Rescue personnel and equipment at the scene where an Amtrak passenger train derailed on a bridge in DuPont, Washington on Dec 18.

WASHINGTON - When President Donald Trump took to Twitter in reaction to a train crash in Washington state on Monday morning (Dec 18), it was to remind Americans of the country's increasingly creaky infrastructure - and his proposed US$ 1 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 that just occurred in Dupont, WA 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 tragic crash that took three lives and left many badly 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. However, a braking system called Positive Train Control mandated by Congress was not in use on that track. 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 over a thousand flights and affecting Delta Airlines' schedules, 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 over the phone.

The ASCE issues a report card every four years on American infrastructure. Its 2017 report gave infrastructure a D+. Railways 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 itself has good news and bad news for infrastructure.

The good news is that it proposes innovative funding mechanisms.

But the bad news, as Mr Pallasch pointed out is that there was "an opportunity in the tax bill to find some revenue to pay for additional infrastructure, but that didn't happen".

And 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 said.

In May, Amtrak, the national railroad which carries over 31 million passengers a year across America, saw its budget cut by 13 per cent in President Trump's transportation budget.

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 gasoline tax to fund bridge maintenance.

Though it took six 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. The programme involved several major bridge replacements. But it will end next year, and transport safety advocates worry that revenue from the 2008 gas tax increase will not be able to meet future needs.

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.

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