U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington May 14, 2015. Reuters/Yuri Gripas
WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner dismissed the notion that Amtrak was suffering from a shortage of funding and that additional money could have helped prevent the deadly derailment on Tuesday. Congressional Republicans have overseen reductions in funding to the government-subsidized railroad and plan to reduce the entity’s appropriations for the next fiscal year.
The train that derailed in Philadelphia, killing at least eight people and injuring more than 200, was traveling faster than 100 mph at the time of the accident. Democrats have begun to argue that Amtrak suffers from low funding from the federal government and that better investments in technology that slows trains might have prevented the accident.
Asked about Democratic criticism that Amtrak was underfunded and Republicans are to blame for the lack of funds, Boehner cut off the inquiry, calling it a “stupid question.”
“Listen, they started this yesterday, ‘It’s all about funding, it’s all about funding,’ ” Boehner said, imitating Democrats. “Well, obviously, it’s not about funding. The train was going twice the speed limit. Adequate funds were there. No money has been cut from rail safety. And the House passed a bill earlier this spring to reauthorize Amtrak and authorize a lot of these programs. It’s hard for me to imagine that people take the bait from some of the nonsense that gets spewed around here.”
Republicans continue to oversee cuts to Amtrak’s funding. The subcommittee in the House that oversees Amtrak funds voted on Wednesday to approve legislation that would fund the rail system by $250 million less than it received the previous year. Republicans voted down an amendment brought by Democrats that would have increased that level.
The House Appropriations Committee also refused to fund an $825 million request in President Barack Obama’s budget to provide for Positive Train Control systems — a technology that would have automatically slowed the speeding train. Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of senators voted to delay the deadline, which was originally set for the end of this year, to install the PTC technology, including along the corridor where the derailment occurred. Senate Republicans had been planning to announce reductions and reforms to Amtrak spending this week, but delayed the announcement after the Tuesday derailment.
Minutes before Boehner spoke, in the same room House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi offered criticism that Republicans weren’t helping to fund Amtrak, arguing the rail system, like the roads, are necessary for homeland security as well as for environmental and way-of-life reasons. “The Republicans have been very much against Amtrak for a very long time,” Pelosi said. “For some reason, it has just been opposed by some, not all, in the Republican Party.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., responded to Boehner’s remarks on Amtrak, saying the speaker was incorrect on the need for more funding. “Speaker Boehner’s comments are patently false,” he said in a statement. “Experts have made clear that Positive Train Control could have prevented the tragedy in Philadelphia. It is simply a fact that insufficient funding for Amtrak has delayed the installation of PTC, and to deny a connection between the accident and underfunding Amtrak is to deny reality.”
UPDATED 5:05 p.m. ET: This article has been updated to include a response from New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer.