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Warning Signals: Metro-North Accident Underscores Need for Investment in Rail Infrastructure

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On Sunday Bronx residents were jarred from sleep by the horrific sound of metal grinding against metal, trees, and gravel as the southbound Metro-North express from Poughkeepsie hurtled from the tracks just short of the Spuyten Duyvil station. Four passengers died when the train derailed ⎯ the first fatal incident in the railroad's history -- leading MTA officials and New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo to demand answers. While the root cause of the tragedy is still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, it should draw attention to the unacceptable state of our nation's transit infrastructure which was given a "D" grade by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Know for its reliability, Metro-North has built a reputation over its 30-year history as one of the United States' premier commuter railroads. But over the last year, the railroad has experienced its share of troubles with a serious collision in Connecticut, the death of a track foreman, and a power outage that disrupted service on its New Haven line for nearly two weeks. As a former intern at the MTA, I have seen first-hand that the constant lack of funding and political pressure to cut costs are beginning to take their toll on the condition of critical infrastructure and rolling stock.

Lack of funding for the railroad's capital programs are delaying upgrades essential to customer safety. In their preliminary press releases, the NTSB made it clear that the train involved in Sunday's derailment was traveling at 82mph, nearly three times the 30mph speed limit. A system called positive train control that tracks train positions and can remotely correct speeds when limits are exceeded would have almost certainly prevented the accident. But because of funding constraints, its implementation at Metro-North and other passenger railroads has been facing chronic delays. Additionally, upgrades to critical trackside fiber optic cables and signal systems are also facing extended timelines as a result of budgetary constraints.

This is not the fault of Metro-North or its parent agency. It is a situation that, unfortunately, is playing out at public agencies across the country. Modern infrastructure requires modern funding. New Yorkers are painfully aware of the MTA's budget woes thanks to a series of transit fare increases in recent years. As last Sunday's accident reminds us, the squeeze on public transit in the United States does more than impact commuters' wallets. It is dangerous. In the age of fiscal austerity, basic track and rolling stock maintenance will fall to the wayside as simply staying fiscally afloat takes precedence.

But it is a problem we can solve. It is time for the federal government to re-adjust its funding priorities. With the broad budgetary and taxation powers granted to Congress, they must step in to allocate more money to rail infrastructure to not only improve our commutes and boost economic growth, but to sustain basic safety measures. Congress needs to create a national infrastructure bank like the one proposed by President Obama to provide the billions of dollars transit providers need to ensure that their systems meet global standards.

Unfortunately, in an era characterized by radical anti-spending and anti-tax crusades by members of Congress like Ted Cruz, the federal government cannot be depended upon. In the absence of federal initiative, states can also forge ahead through taxation or other fee structures. Of course, states officials will also struggle to raise the political capital required to make such increases palatable to constituents. To supplement tax-based funding, agencies can also consider innovative project and service delivery methods. Public-private partnerships, if properly administered, could be part of the solution.

In other countries like the United Kingdom and Japan, rail carriers have be re-privatized by the state. British railroads utilize a two-tiered system in which the trains are operated by private companies like First Group under contract and infrastructure is maintained by a public entity. Here in the United States, some new projects like the "Purple Line" in the Washington, D.C. area are using a similar partnership model. Private companies, which pay a fee to lease routes from the government, have streamlined rail operations. In fact, in the United Kingdom, First Group has posted £28.3 million profits in the past six months with over 7 percent growth in its rail business. The potential for profit on busy rail routes like Metro-North could provide incentives for prospective lessees while freeing up transit agencies' budgets to focus on infrastructure repair and maintenance.

However, there are pitfalls to such a program. Contracts would need to be carefully structured to maintain the social capital generated by a good transit system. For example, stipulations about service to less popular stations would need to be included along with minimum service frequencies. Fare increases and labor issues would also need to be addressed. In cities like New York or Chicago with heavy commuter traffic, these constraints should not prove obstacles for companies to generate revenue. For customers in very busy stretches of track, a profit-driven model could even improve service efficiency while providing agencies with cash to expand maintenance and capital investment programs.

While this structure could be effective in cities where commuting by rail is a popular way to get to work, it might not be as immediately appealing in place like Los Angeles where cars still rule. And even at agencies where public private partnerships might work, they are not a complete solution. To truly realize the requirements of modern rail service, an "all of the above" approach is necessary. Comprehensive infrastructure reform would include a federal effort combined with state and local funding. Quite simply, officials in the United States need to re-adjust their priorities, placing a future of safe, efficient, and socially equitable transportation near the top of their agendas.