Republican lawmakers on Friday dug in to their party’s defense of cuts to Amtrak funding, declaring that the train derailment that killed eight people this week “did not have anything to do with money,” as Rep. Bill Shuster put it.
Rep. John Mica took the argument a step further and suggested on CNN that opening the commuter rail market to private investment was the solution to what he called a “third-world rail system … run in a Soviet-style operation.”
“There’s no question the United States has a third-world rail system. It’s a monopoly run in a Soviet-style operation. Amtrak,” said the Florida Republican.
Republicans have long looked to Amtrak as a focus of its efforts to cut domestic spending broadly, and many see cutting funding for the train system as a bid to privatize it. On Wednesday, less than 24 hours after the New York-bound train crashed, the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee voted to reduce grants to Amtrak by $252 million – a drop of about 15% from last year’s level.
Those comments come as Democrats continue to hammer Republicans for pushing cuts in the wake of the crash, and on Thursday called for $1 billion in additional funding for the commuter rail system. Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons decried that vote as “striking,” and called for more Amtrak funding.
“If we were investing anything like our competitors, we would have a modern national train system,” Coons said on CNN’s “New Day.” “We have an aging infrastructure that we have to pay for.”
And Democrats are now arguing that lackluster funding has prevented Amtrak from implementing a safety mechanism, known as Positive Train Control, that federal safety officials say could have prevented the derailment this week.
With additional funding, Democrats argue that Amtrak could have installed the safety system, which can slow a train going too fast into a reduced speed zone.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, the No. 3 Senate Democrat, said Thursday that “it is simply a fact that insufficient funding for Amtrak has delayed the installation of PTC.”
Republicans are denying any connection between Amtrak funding and Tuesday’s crash, with House Speaker calling a reporter’s question “stupid” on Thursday when asked about the link between the two.
“The train was going twice the speed limit. Adequate funds were there – no money was cut from rail safety, and the House passed a bill earlier this spring to reauthorize Amtrak and authorize a lot of these programs,” Boehner said. “It’s hard for me to imagine that people take the bait on some of the nonsense that gets spewed around here.”
Republicans are instead faulting inefficient allocation of funds and are also now touting a 2012 report from Amtrak’s inspector general that showed Amtrak has struggled to implement the PTC mechanism because it has struggled to get the greenlight it needs from the Federal Communications Commission.
In fact, the PTC technology had been installed on the portion of the track where the train derailed Tuesday due to excessively high speeds, but the system hadn’t been activated due to ongoing regulatory issues with the FCC, according to a House Republican appropriations committee aide, who requested anonymity because the crash remains under federal investigation.
But an FCC official told CNN that it took Amtrak three years to negotiate the purchase of spectrum the railway needed to purchase, since the radio frequencies are limited.
“It took them three more years to negotiate with private parties to acquire the needed spectrum for the Washington D.C. to New York corridor,” the official said in a statement. “Once Amtrak finalized their application, the Commission approved it within two days [in March 2015].”
Echoing Shuster’s comments earlier on CNN’s “New Day,” Mica argued that Amtrak had enough money, but “squanders” it. He said that Amtrak has spent their funds on bonuses for executives and a losing foodservice program instead of necessary improvements to keep the trains running on time.
“It’s not how much money you spend, it’s where you spend the money — and we’re spending billions” on the nation’s railway system, he said.
The solution, according to Mica — a former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and an outspoken proponent of Amtrak privatization — would be to allow for more competition from the private sector, which would “provide good, efficient service at reasonable cost so we don’t have to squander more taxpayer money in the Amtrak pit.”
“Many people don’t know what they’re talking about” when they say Republicans are hurting the rail system by pushing cuts, Mica said. “We’re trying to do responsible things with taxpayers’ money.”
Shuster also defended his party’s position on Amtrak during an earlier appearance on CNN’s “New Day,” arguing the crash “did not have anything to do with money.
“It had to do with a failure on either the operator’s fault or the equipment’s fault. It had to do with one of those two things that caused this terrible accident,” he said.
Pressed on whether more funding for better infrastructure would’ve avoided the crash, the Pennsylvania Republican said he believed the infrastructure was “in place” and the “tracks were fine.”
CNN’s Athena Jones contributed to this report.