By Amanda Cuda and John Burgeson
The nation isn't taking care of its rail infrastructure, and billions more must be spent to keep passenger and freight trains rolling swiftly and safely.
That was the message that Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy had for a gathering of reporters at the city's Metro-North Railkroad station Wednesday.
Joined by U.S. Rep. Jim Himes and Mayor Bill Finch, the officials called on the federal government to spend more on rail safety and reliability following the May 17 commuter train derailment and collision in Bridgeport that left more than 70 people injured and shut down service along the busy Metro-North New Haven line for four days.
Murphy said that over the next 20 years, $4.6 billion would be needed just to maintain the Connecticut section of the railroad -- $50 billion for the entire Northeast rail corridor.
"And that's just to keep the rail line in a state of good repair," he said. "That does not get you more trains or faster transit times."
Blumenthal said some sort of rail trust fund should be established to ensure there is sufficient money for infrastructure improvement.
"This is a critical point in a vital artery," Blumenthal said. "it can be a gateway or a choke point."
He said the recent derailment showed how vital it is to have the tracks open without fail.
"The government woefully under-invested in this job-creator," Finch said. "These four ribbons of steel bring people to work and help to grow Bridgeport. But they run on old computer systems and old catenary lines. It's time to get behind our senators and our congressional delegation."
Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders issued the following statement:
"Metro-North appreciates the supportive comments of Connecticut's leaders today regarding the critical importance of federal funding for rail infrastructure, and we are happy to work with our elected representatives to develop sustained funding solutions that will expedite track and signal improvements, bridge replacements and other investments to improve mass transit in Connecticut and the Northeast."
On May 17, an eastbound train from New York City derailed during the evening rush hour, came to a stop and was struck about 20 seconds later by a westbound train, according to the The National Transportation Safety Board. About 700 people were on board.
The rail safety agency is still investigating the wreck, but has ruled out foul play.
"We have to make decisions as a country as to whether or not we're willing to step up to the plate and pay enough in taxes to the federal government to make sure that disasters don't happen on this line," Murphy said Wednesday.
Himes said making a greater commitment to the Boston-to-Washington rail corridor is long overdue.
"You don't need to spend a lot of time on Metro-North and Amtrak to know that our service here is far substandard and probably dangerous," he said. "When you give up on keeping people safe on the rails, you have completely given up on the economic growth that those rails bring. When you're worried about your tracks falling apart, you're not thinking forward."
Blumenthal said the nation needs a rail trust fund similar to the United States Highway Trust Fund, which is built through the federal 18.3-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline, a 24.4-cent-per-gallon diesel fuel tax and related excise taxes. The rail fund, he said, could be funded with low-interest treasury bonds and various rail usage fees.
"There's tremendous demand out there for U.S. Treasury bonds -- they're rock solid," he said.
Blumenthal said he will be chairman of an upcoming hearing of the Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security, at which the rail trust fund is to be discussed.
"I've talked to a number of my colleagues about it, and they seemed to think that this was a good idea," he said. "The good news is that every community, every state, has rails like these."
Blumenthal said Republicans in Congress who are resistant to spending on infrastructure should remember that it was President Dwight D. Eisenhower who spent billions in the 1950s to create the interstate highway system.
"This cause used to be bipartisan," Blumenthal said, adding that the GOP needs to free itself from the "ideological straitjacket" on spending and view this as an investment.
"Investment in this rail line is an economic investment -- in the city of Bridgeport and the state of Connecticut," he said.
During the news conference on the eastern end of the New York-bound platform, a number of Metro-North trains rumbled by, as well as an Amtrak Acela Express.
Murphy suggested that at least some of this investment could come from Amtrak.
"Amtrak makes a lot of profit on the trains that run through here," he said. "Three hundred million dollars every year in profit from Amtrak trains running on these tracks."
Murphy said that these Amtrak profits are spent elsewhere in the nation, not in the Northeast.
"They should spent it here," he said.