Patrick Semansky/AP

Amtrak Has a Trust Problem in Congress

Democrats want to give the rail service more money, and Republicans are demanding more accountability.

In the wake of a horrific train derailment, everyone in Congress agrees that Amtrak—particularly in the now-paralyzed Northeast Corridor—is ailing. But the two parties are offering very different prescriptions to fix it.

Regardless of the ultimate cause of Tuesday's deadly accident in Philadelphia—the National Transportation Safety Board said the train was going 106 mph in an area where the speed limit was 50 mph—Democrats want more money for Amtrak to shore up the rail line, and Republicans want more accountability.

"The problem is you give Amtrak the money and they blow the improvements or squander it," said Republican Rep. John Mica on Wednesday. "Congress does not trust Amtrak. They've given them the money before."

Democrats, for their part, have for years complained that Amtrak is underfunded. The lack of money for Amtrak explains the deterioration of the track along the Northeast Corridor and the long-overdue bridge and tunnel projects that could help prevent bottlenecks along the line.

"I would say that that program is already somewhat inefficient since Amtrak has a $21 billion state-of-good-repair backlog," Rep. Peter DeFazio, the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said at a hearing Wednesday. "It's deteriorating every year, and at the current level of investment, if the appropriators don't cut it, it'll take about 25 or 30 years to get it up to a state of good repair."

That's not to say that Democrats wouldn't welcome more transparency from Amtrak's account books, but they would like that oversight to come in concert with a bigger investment. Rep. Peter Welch, a Democrat from Vermont, said Wednesday that he would love to see greater accountability from Amtrak. But he also wants a long-term surface-transportation bill that will allow state transportation departments to plan their projects.

Democrats like Welch discussed the Amtrak crisis Wednesday in the context of the need for more investment. Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey went to the Senate floor to discuss how the country has shortchanged its infrastructure investment writ large. "There is an $86 billion dollar backlog of transit maintenance needs—not expanding, just maintaining," he said.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over Amtrak, is working with GOP Sen. Roger Wicker to craft an Amtrak overhaul bill similar to one that passed the House in March. They would have introduced it Wednesday but for Tuesday's accident, which might prompt them to rewrite parts of it. "If there is an action that needs to be taken to improve safety in the wake of this tragedy as we're finalizing the bill, I know we can work together to make that a reality," Booker said.

Republicans, for their part, are dubious about whether giving Amtrak more money will solve any problems.

Mica is unusual among critics of Amtrak. Unlike a host of House Republicans who don't want taxpayer money funding Amtrak at all, Mica actually likes rail. He supports high-speed rail and wants to see a national train network. He just has a low opinion of Amtrak. He refers to the national passenger-rail network as "a Soviet-style train operation." As the past chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, he has made life miserable for Amtrak officials, hauling them up to Capitol Hill for hearings and demanding to know where they spend their money.

Now, Mica says, it's going to be harder to convince his GOP colleagues to give more money to Amtrak, even if that money would fix the list of high-priority projects that an independent commission has recommended for the Washington-New York-Boston line.

"The Northeastern Corridor does need substantial investment," Mica said in an interview just outside the House floor. Indicating members of the Republican caucus standing behind him, he added, "This group is reluctant to give it to them, particularly the new kids on the block, because they've had a horrible history."

Democratic Rep. Janice Hahn said at a hearing Wednesday that the specific reason for the Philadelphia crash almost doesn't matter—that the accident should still be a wake-up call. "Even sometimes when we find out that the cause of a train accident was human error or something else," she said, "it seems that we move away from focusing on, 'Did infrastructure play a role?' or 'Are we just another bad infrastructure design away from another accident?'"