White House: Republicans Have Blocked Investments in Amtrak

It’s not clear whether infrastructure issues contributed to the recent derailment. But Press Secretary Josh Earnest still cited opposition between the administration and congressional Republicans on investments.

National Journal
Priscilla Alvarez and Nora Kelly
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Priscilla Alvarez Nora Kelly
May 13, 2015, 10:24 a.m.

Call­ing the Amtrak train de­rail­ment a “hor­rif­ic in­cid­ent,” White House press sec­ret­ary Josh Earn­est said in­vest­ment in up­grades to the rail sys­tem’s in­fra­struc­ture re­main im­port­ant to the ad­min­is­tra­tion. And Pres­id­ent Obama, he said, has long ad­voc­ated for Amtrak in­vest­ments that would “be­ne­fit the trav­el­ing pub­lic.”

But Earn­est was quick to note in his press brief­ing Wed­nes­day that con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans have blocked such in­vest­ments in the past.

“Un­for­tu­nately we have seen a con­cer­ted ef­fort by Re­pub­lic­ans for par­tis­an reas­ons to step in front of those kinds of ad­vance­ments,” Earn­est said, not­ing that the cause of the crash is still un­der in­vest­ig­a­tion, and it’s un­clear wheth­er in­fra­struc­ture prob­lems were in­volved.

At least sev­en in­di­vidu­als have died since North­east Re­gion­al Train 188 de­railed out­side of Phil­adelphia late Tues­day night, and more than 200 have been treated at area hos­pit­als in the wake of the crash. Two of those killed have been iden­ti­fied as an As­so­ci­ated Press video soft­ware ar­chi­tect and a U.S. Nav­al Academy mid­ship­man.

The train, which ori­gin­ated in Wash­ing­ton and was bound for New York, was car­ry­ing 238 pas­sen­gers and five crew mem­bers. Amtrak’s North­east Cor­ridor, where ser­vice has been sus­pen­ded in the wake of the crash, is the coun­try’s busiest rail line.

Earn­est said that the pres­id­ent spoke with Phil­adelphia May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, and told them he was “pleased with the way their state jur­is­dic­tion and loc­al jur­is­dic­tions re­spon­ded to the in­cid­ent.”

Earn­est noted Wed­nes­day that where­as the Obama budget pro­pos­al in­cludes a nearly bil­lion-dol­lar in­crease in fund­ing for Amtrak in­fra­struc­ture up­grades, “Re­pub­lic­ans are, un­for­tu­nately, con­sid­er­ing le­gis­la­tion at the com­mit­tee level that would ac­tu­ally cut fund­ing from Amtrak’s budget by, I be­lieve, a quarter of a bil­lion dol­lars a year,” Earn­est said. He softened his com­ments, though, by in­dic­at­ing that law­makers are still in the early stages of the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess.

When asked if there was any­thing more the pres­id­ent could do to press for in­vest­ment in in­fra­struc­ture, Earn­est said Con­gress has “the power of the purse, and so for sig­ni­fic­ant in­vest­ment in in­fra­struc­ture, we’re go­ing to need to see con­gres­sion­al ac­tion.”

“The pres­id­ent has put for­ward his own plan that would be fully paid for” to in­vest in mass trans­it, he said. That plan in­volves clos­ing tax loop­holes to gen­er­ate rev­en­ue, an idea he said has some sup­port from Re­pub­lic­ans.

“But we haven’t seen a lot of move­ment of this on Cap­it­ol Hill,” Earn­est said. “We’re go­ing to con­tin­ue to try to push it.”

Earn­est’s com­ments come as in­vest­ig­at­ors from the Na­tion­al Trans­port­a­tion Safety Board are on the ground in Phil­adelphia, at­tempt­ing to dis­cern what caused all sev­en of the train’s cars to come off the tracks. The train’s event re­cord­ers—akin to an air­plane’s “black box”—have been re­covered and are be­ing ex­amined.

Pres­id­ent Obama re­leased a state­ment earli­er Wed­nes­day ad­dress­ing the de­rail­ment.

“Along the North­east Cor­ridor, Amtrak is a way of life for many,” he said. “From Wash­ing­ton, D.C. and Phil­adelphia to New York City and Bo­ston, this is a tragedy that touches us all.”

This story has been up­dated with more com­ments from Earn­est on in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment.

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