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Another fallout from rail accident: Debate over Amtrak’s funding

Shortly after the deadly Amtrak train crash in Philadelphia, a House committee voted to cut money for Amtrak’s capital investment program, sparking a debate over Amtrak’s funding and infrastructure. Gwen Ifill gets views from Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., and Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Following the deadly train derailment in Philadelphia, a House committee voted to cut money for Amtrak’s capital investment program. The move sparked a fight over funding infrastructure.

    We talk to a pair of key lawmakers. Representative Chaka Fattah is a Democrat from Pennsylvania whose district includes Philadelphia. And Congressman John Mica is a Republican from Florida who serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

    Welcome to you both.

    Congressmen, I want to ask you both, starting with you, John Mica, do you think Congress has adequately funded Amtrak?

  • REP. JOHN MICA, (R) Florida:

    Well, I think, given Amtrak’s history of poor performance, I think they have given them more than enough money, subsidizing last year, for example, every ticket on Amtrak, all 30.9 million, $42 on average.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Congressman Fatah?

  • REP. CHAKA FATTAH, (D) Pennsylvania:

    Well, there’s no passenger rail in the world that is not subsidized. That’s number one.

    But the point here is that president and the transportation experts in our government proposed $2.4 billion for capital and safety improvements, that Congress on — yesterday, on the Appropriations Committee, cut that by $1.3 billion.

    I asked for us to go back to the president’s request. Instead of doing that, what they did wasn’t honor the increase the president wanted. They cut last year’s appropriation by more than $250 million. So I think that it would have been better not to even have the committee yesterday, because it got merged into the story about the train accident in Philadelphia.

    But this was a committee that had been set to meet a month ago. The subcommittee had already voted these cuts, and the majority decided, notwithstanding what happened in Philadelphia, that they wanted to make the point, as you heard from my colleague here, that they don’t think that we should be subsidizing passenger rail.

    I think we should, and I think we need to invest the dollars necessary to make sure that it’s safe.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Congressman Mica, Speaker Boehner said today that this accident was about speed, not about infrastructure or about funding Amtrak in general. Was that your point of view as well?

  • REP. JOHN MICA:

    Well, that’s my point of view.

    And let me say that, again, when President Obama was elected, he was going to create high-speed rail in the United States. Instead of putting it in the Northeast Corridor, which is the only track, the 600 miles that Amtrak owns — the rest of Amtrak runs over private freight rails — he took $10 billion. About $6 billion is going to California, mostly where there’s fruits and vegetables to move, Illinois, where they’re going to have high-speed rail which runs about 65 miles an hour, $1.5 billion there.

    Instead of investing it in the Northeast Corridor, where we could have high-speed rail, where we have the connections, we could have the revenue and expand the system, but they didn’t do that.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Are you saying that if the president had spent money that was already allocated differently, an accident like yesterday would have been less likely?

  • REP. JOHN MICA:

    Oh, absolutely.

    We couldn’t have in the Northeast Corridor high-speed service and dramatic revenues and changed the pattern of traffic. And there are — contrary to what my colleague has said, there are systems that do make money. Virgin Rail installed in the north-south from London to North England route, they increased passengers from 14 million to 28 million, went from a deficit of 400 million, subsidized by the federal Europe — or British government, to that much in revenue coming in to the British treasury in 10 years.

  • REP. JOHN MICA:

    The model is there across the world, and we’re a Third World Soviet-style train operator.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, let me let your colleague respond to that.

  • REP. CHAKA FATTAH:

    Well, what I want to say is, you don’t have to listen to a Democrat or Republican member of Congress.

    We have the world premier innovator, the National Transportation Safety Board, and they have said, in terms of the Philadelphia accident, that it wouldn’t have happened if we had positive train control. We know that that investment could have been made. It hasn’t been made.

    So we hear not from politicians, but from experts, that, yes, we could have safe passenger rail travel in our country. We have to make the investment needed to do so.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And when you say positive train control, I just want to make sure everyone understands. That would automatically override the engineer to slow a train that was going faster than the speed limit.

    So, you believe — now, that could — that’s supposed to be in all trains by the end of this year. Do you think that’s going to happen or is that going to be delayed?

  • REP. CHAKA FATTAH:

    Well, the Congress has mandated it by the end of the year. There were a number of members in the Senate who wanted to delay it to 2020. I don’t think there’s going to be any delay now. I think we are going to move forward.

    And the technology save lives, at least based on what experts say, not on what politicians say. So, there’s a debate whether we should have passenger rail and whether we should subsidize it. The point is, we have it and we should make sure it’s safe. Just like when people drive over bridges, we want them to be safe. We want our highways to be safe.

    We have to invest in infrastructure. We have — the World Economic Forum, since my colleague wants to talk about international measurements, says that America now has the 12th worst infrastructure in the world. So, you know, if the government’s not going to step up to its responsibility, then we’re going to continue to have our economy take a back seat.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Congressman Mica, how much of this is about ideology, when it comes right down to it, that you and your party just don’t agree that this should be a public rail system, and they believe there should be more spent?

  • REP. JOHN MICA:

    Gwen, you’re talking to one of the most strong — well, the strongest advocate in Congress for passenger rail.

    It’s cost-effective. We should have it. In fact, I put in the last passenger rail bill that we passed the creation of a Northeast Corridor commission, which I tried to empower to get them to advance improvements. They just came out with a report two weeks ago, and I support that report. It calls for $20 billion.

    But Congress isn’t going to give it to Amtrak, which fumbles every bit of acquisition money, and they did — they have had the money since October to put in the positive train control and the other improvements, and they didn’t do it.

    So that could have been avoided if they’d considered safety first when they spent will more than $1 billion we gave them last October.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Congressman Mica, I gave you the first word. Let me give Congressman Fattah the last word.

  • REP. CHAKA FATTAH:

    Well, it’s true that my colleague put in place this commission. He wanted to have 228-mile-an-hour trains in the Northeast Corridor.

    They call for not the $20 billion, but for $117 billion in investments, in order to have that happen. I think that would move our economy forward. It’s going to need the investment of the federal government if that’s going to happen. And so I support him, if that’s the way we’re going to proceed.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Congressman John Mica, Republican of Florida, Congressman Chaka Fattah, Democrat of Pennsylvania, fundamentally different points of view about a very serious issue. Thank you both very much.

  • REP. JOHN MICA:

    Thank you.

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