Trump infrastructure plans buoy area lawmakers worried over transit safety

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An injured passenger is assisted by an EMS worker as he lies on a gurney outside Atlantic Terminal after a Long Island Rail Road incident

An injured passenger is assisted by an EMS worker as he lies on a gurney outside Atlantic Terminal after a Long Island Rail Road incident

Last week when more than 100 commuters were injured in a New York train crash, many lawmakers in the region immediately thought of the 2015 Amtrak crash in Philadelphia’s Port Richmond neighborhood that killed eight and injured more than 200.

U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, who takes the train from Delaware to Washington daily, said rail safety must be addressed.

“We have broader challenges and risk exposure in the commuter rail system that deserve attention and investment,” said Coons, a Democrat.

After President-elect Donald Trump floated a massive infrastructure bill, many lawmakers from the Northeast immediately thought of rail.

“Any infrastructure package that deals with our real challenges as a country has to improve rail infrastructure — commuter rail, regional rail, national rail,” said Coons. “Our competitors around the world are investing in cutting-edge rail infrastructure, from China to Japan to Germany.

“The U.S. needs to also invest in upgrading and modernizing our rail infrastructure,” he said.

With Democrats playing defense against most of Trump’s proposals and many of his Cabinet nominees, U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle of Philadelphia said the infrastructure proposal is a breath of fresh air for the GOP.

“As someone who’s strongly opposed Trump’s election and is concerned about what Trump will do as president, I would say the one silver lining in a very dark cloud is that he seems to have a more Democratic position when it comes to transportation and infrastructure,” Boyle said.

Trump’s infrastructure package has created a few strange bedfellows in hyperpartisan Washington, he said.

“On the politics of this issue, you would have more Democrats voting for it than Republicans, but presumably in Trump you would have enough of the Republicans that he would be able to carry,” Boyle said. “This was one of the issue where he did not sound like a doctrinaire conservative.”

While not all Republicans are clamoring for a massive infrastructure bill, many from the Philadelphia region are — including U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello of Chester County.

“Someone such as myself representing the Philadelphia suburbs certainly my ears perk up when we talk about more of an investment in public transportation and fixing our roads and bridges, mindful that we have more miles of roads in disrepair in Pennsylvania than any other state in the country,” he said. “Also mindful that we have more structurally deficient bridges in Pennsylvania than anywhere else in the country.”

But Costello, who said he hopes the new president will send Congress an infrastructure bill, said the politics of any transportation bill gets tricky quickly.

“That’s the other piece of the puzzle here …  you’re going to see those in the Northeast want to see a focus on — or at least a commitment to — public transit, you’re going to see those on the coasts want to see more investment in our ports,” he said. “You’re going to see the aviation industry, a lot of regional airports, so everybody’s going to want their bite of the apple here.”

Trump has floated the idea of a public/private partnership to pay for the massive transportation bill, but Costello said he hasn’t heard any details on the proposal.

“So when you’re talking about a big infrastructure package that isn’t paid for, we don’t have any specifics on that, nor do we see how the money would be allocated,” he said. “It really is very ambiguous and it’s not really ripe for any kind of vote here.”

That’s where Northeast lawmakers could be key players in the debate. While many Republicans from the South and Midwest may balk at the idea of a massive transportation bill, South Jersey U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur said he will try to convince his conservative colleagues to view the proposal differently.

“I think infrastructure investment, it’s not a sunk cost. It’s an investment in future growth,” MacArthur said.

With Republicans focusing on repealing Obamacare and on a major change to the nation’s tax code, Northeast lawmakers fear their dream of a massive transportation bill that also addresses rail safety may become stuck on the back burner.

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