In early May, I headed out to Patapsco Valley State Park near Baltimore, Maryland, for a cycling event. The park opens at 9:00 a.m., the same time the event was scheduled, so I arrived early, hoping to reach the group on time. When I got to the park at 8:00 a.m. with coffee and book in hand, there was already a long line of cars, including bicyclists, families hoping to hike, people with fishing poles, and others just wanting to enjoy a beautiful day. When the gate opened, it took a very long time for cars to actually enter the park (and I ended up missing the cycling event), and at first I could not understand why.
It turned out that every car reached the ranger station only to be told that the park was closed, because overnight one of the stone bridges that carries freight trains into and out of Baltimore had begun crumbling onto the park road, and the rangers were, rightly, afraid someone might get injured or worse. Before making a U-turn to leave, I looked at the bridge—a beautiful old stone railroad bridge with a very long and heavy freight train sitting immobilized on top of it—and thought “this is our future… a nation of neglected and crumbling infrastructure that will begin to affect all of us.” In this case, no one was hurt but the potential for disaster was great, had the park opened before evidence of the crumbling bridge was discovered.
My experience, of course, pales in comparison to the crash earlier this week of an Amtrak train out of Philadelphia, which was responsible for at least eight deaths as well as injuries suffered by hundreds of others, not to mention the closure of a main transportation and economic artery in what is known as the Northeast Corridor. While an investigation is under way and the full story may not come out for as long as a year, there are several things we already know about this crash, many of which we’ve known for a long time.
One is that, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, a system known as “positive train control”—which checks and can control the speed of a train—could have prevented the crash. Another is that the lack of such a system also killed four people and injured dozens in a New York City crash, this one involving a Metro-North train in 2013. A third is that positive train control is both technically complex and very costly, requiring by some estimates more than $10 billion to implement fully. And there are many other problems with the nation’s train system, including, for example, old tracks and crumbling bridges. According to former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, speaking Thursday on the Diane Rehm Show, there are at least ten railroad bridges used by Amtrak, some over 100 years old, that are badly in need of replacement or repair, and require $1 billion each to replace. The situation will only get worse: Replacing these bridges now will cost many times what it would have cost in the 1990s. And those costs, which do not include the increasing human toll in death and injury, will continue to rise each year we delay.
These problems are by no means limited to Amtrak bridges or even just to our broader railway system. A 2011 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers stated that decaying infrastructure—roads, rails, bridges, ports—was then costing the United States $129 billion per year in lost economic activity, and would cost $430 billion within ten years. We are already halfway there.
This is a national crisis and one that would sensibly engender the question: What is the U.S. Congress doing to address it?
Yesterday, the GOP provided us with an answer.
House Republicans voted overwhelmingly to cut Amtrak’s budget and refused to approve funds for hastening the installation of positive train control across the nation’s railroads. Their reasons? “Something, something, something, funding not related to the crash,” they mumbled in unison. In other words, their fallback is always to blame the individual and take no responsibility for the havoc their policies have wrought.
Meanwhile, the House GOP did take the time to pass a 20-week abortion ban that would increase the emotional, economic, and physical costs of abortion care and would, if signed into law, ultimately cost some women their lives and innumerable others their freedom. It is interesting to note that some of the most vociferous attacks on women and their bodies this year and last came from Congressman Andy Harris (R-MD), whom the Baltimore Suncalled “obsessed with abortion,” and who spent countless hours during this period leading the charge to overturn democratically approved abortion funding in the District of Columbia. Harris is on the House appropriations committee that voted to cut Amtrak funding, and also appeared as a guest on Diane Rehm’s show today, three days after the crash, to argue against funding for rail and transportation safety. Congressman Paul Ryan, author of one of the most cruel budgets in U.S. history and another supporter of abortion restrictions (because… “life”) appeared on Fox News, also to defend budget cuts to Amtrak.
These two votes tell us a lot about the real agenda of the Republican Party. In its quest to protect corporate power and profits and by extension its own interests at literally any cost, the GOP seeks to defund every public service, erase all forms of regulation, and render toothless every public enforcement agency under its jurisdiction. In short, the party follows a fundamentalist ideology in service of corporate interest and profits and that thing known as the “free market” that is in turn leading to cuts and deregulation so severe Republicans are actively, purposefully undermining the health, safety, welfare, and livelihoods of an untold number of American citizens. People will die and become injured and seriously disabled as a result of the neglect of the nation’s infrastructure and as a result of budget cuts and deregulation in many other areas. (And I am purposely leaving for another time other ways in which GOP policies lead to higher rates of death and illness, such as denial of Medicaid expansion, preventable outbreaks of disease, and other measures that endanger public health and welfare.)
To both divert attention from the slow motion train wreck that is our crumbling infrastructure, economy, and broader threats like climate change, the GOP has adopted and pursued another fundamentalist ideology: the obsessive, one might say pathological, campaign to control women’s bodies no matter the cost to women’s lives and health. Translation: They have the time, inclination, and desire to regulate your body, but not to protect it from known threats over which they have legal purview and for which they are, as elected officials, both responsible and accountable.
Ironically, and I would say audaciously, they still call their party “pro-life.”
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