There has been a spate of fatal railroad accidents in recent years, and Connecticut’s congressional delegation, perhaps more so than congressional representatives from any other Northeast state, have adopted commuter safety, both rail and road, as a cause célèbre. But Connecticut’s representatives are not necessarily unanimous on the question of how to keep infrastructure projects funded.
Earlier this month, when the Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2015 (H.R. 2353) came to a vote in the House, Rep. Elizabeth Esty and Rep. James Himes voted in favor. The remaining House representatives from Connecticut — Rep. Joe Courtney, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, and Rep. John Larson — voted against.
The bill serves as a short-term extension of the highway and transportation fund, which the U.S. Department of Transportation says is all-but insolvent. The act, which passed the House on a 387 to 35 vote, keeps the fund funded through July.
“Unfortunately, immediate action was needed to once again pass a short-term extension for Highway Trust Fund programs,” Esty said in a release. “Is this a perfect solution? No. However, it would be irresponsible for Congress to abandon our obligations in the midst of Connecticut’s construction season.
Larson, on the other hand, said Congress should remain in session until a long-term funding bill is passed.
“Enough is enough,” he said. “It’s time to bring a fully funded, long-term transportation bill to the floor. It will pass.”
Esty, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also attempted to tack on an amendment to H.R. 2353 that would have authorized $750 million for implementation of positive train control systems, intended to make rail crossings safer.
“There is no reason why this Congress should ignore its responsibility to help passenger railroads implement this life-saving technology as soon as possible,” Esty said. “We shouldn’t wait until trains derail, bridges collapse, or projects shut down before we fund our transportation infrastructure.”
Esty’s amendment did not pass the House, though the larger bill did.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal has also stumped for positive train controls and increased funding for rail safety, proposing S. 532, the Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Safety Act of 2015, in March.
“New technology can stop crashes and save lives — but has been resisted by railroads. The technology — no longer even new — should be implemented as soon as possible to prevent needless loss of dollars and lives,” he said.
On Friday, when it was the Senate’s turn to debate a short- versus long-term highway funding bill, Sen. Christopher Murphy sided with Himes and Esty, though he called short-term highway funding “the height of stupidity.”
The bill was passed by a voice vote. President Barack Obama is expected to sign it before the May 31 deadline.
“I voted for today’s bill because it would be foolish to shut down the fund at the beginning of construction season, and I’m willing to give Republicans a little more time to come up with a long-term bill,” he said. “But I will be urging my Senate colleagues to draw a line in the sand in July and demand that we stop these short-term patches once and for all, and commit to passing a long-term transportation bill that gives adequate funding and long-term certainty to states.”
Simultaneously, in response to the fatal derailment earlier this month of a New York-bound Amtrak train in Pennsylvania, Murphy asked the U.S. Senate Appropriations Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Subcommittee to put aside a $555.8 million fund for improvements and upgrades to the Northeast rail corridor between Washington and Boston.
Murphy is a member of the subcommittee, but its leaders are both on the other side of the aisle — Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. John Reed, D-R.I., serve as the subcommittee’s chairwoman and ranking member.
“The terrible tragedy in Philadelphia is only the most recent reminder of the tremendous backlog of basic repairs and safety upgrades we have accumulated as the result of years of underinvestment in this critical asset,” Murphy told the subcommittee.
Of the 238 passengers and five crewmembers on board the Amtrak train heading toward New York on May 12, eight were killed and more than 200 injured, though that was just the latest derailment in a series of deadly train crashes.
A Dec. 1, 2013 derailment on Metro-North’s Hudson line resulted in the deaths of four passengers. Earlier that year, a Metro-North train derailed between Fairfield and Bridgeport, causing another train to collide with the first. Of the nearly 700 people on both trains, 70 were injured.
Then, in February 2015, a Metro-North train crashed into an SUV on the tracks at a crossing in Valhalla, N.Y., killing six and injuring 15.
“We in Congress can help,” Esty said on the floor of the House earlier his month, urging her colleagues to support funding the implementation of positive train controls. “We must make this investment before another terrible accident, before another life is tragically and needlessly lost. We can’t afford to wait.”
Jordan Fenster is an award-winning freelance journalist. He lives with his family in Fairfield County. He can be reached by or @JordanFenster on Twitter.
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