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Ailing infrastructure gets little attention

WASHINGTON – Many conservatives considered President Dwight D. Eisenhower a free-spending liberal for embracing the Democrats’ postwar dream of knitting the country together with a national highway system.

Stinginess runs deep among conservatives. Consider Thomas Jefferson. As president, planter Jefferson turned down New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton for a federal grant to study the idea of building the Erie Canal. After all, without outside financing Jefferson had helped build a canal on Virginia’s Rivanna River – with slave labor.

Today’s Republicans appear to have made a cult of spurning a sense of national community. Heading into the Memorial Day holiday, our all-Republican Congress is behaving as though the members hail from another continent. There’s much they’ve left undone.

Their most notorious act, however, was passing a 15 percent cut in funding for Amtrak one day after a derailment left eight dead. In Philadelphia, near where it happened, a memorial bell was rung for the victims as leading Republicans claimed the tragedy was not the result of funding shortages. Financially starving Amtrak had everything to do with it.

Congress gets away with this neglect because “infrastructure”– a four-syllable word – is a political bore. This is until somebody dies or a bridge crashes into a river.

Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York noted that a speed-control system was on the train that wrecked, but was not turned on. An even more sophisticated control system may be installed on some trains, but not on all, Schumer noted, and not necessarily in upstate New York.

Just after the derailment, all House Republicans, including Reps. Chris Collins of Clarence and Tom Reed of Corning, voted against funding for Amtrak safety measures, according to the House Democratic leadership office. This item was caught up in the GOP’s disastrous tangle on financing highway, bridge and tunnel projects.

Congress has kept the highway trust fund, which pays for these needs, teetering on the brink of insolvency for seven years. It has passed a half dozen temporary funding bills, which does nothing for the art of planning improvements.

With time running out on authorization for the program next Saturday, the House has approved another patchwork law, extending it for a mere two months. The nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget said the trust fund will be totally broke in a few months.

Republicans, when cornered, claim there is a long-standing dispute among them on whether to raise the gasoline tax to pay for highways. There is a fringe element that, like opponents to Eisenhower’s interstate system, doesn’t want the federal government to pay for highways at all.

But there was no confusion or budget-consciousness about passing bills that deplete the Treasury. Capitol propagandists claim that all tax cuts must be paid for elsewhere in the budget.

Playing poor-mouth, when faced with deteriorating and dangerous railroads, roads, bridges and tunnels, the GOP has passed nearly $600 billion (over 10 years) in unpaid-for tax cuts.

Some Republicans have found innovative ways to balance the budget, according to columnist Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times. He wrote that the party is eyeing a plan to raid the Medicare Trust Fund to pay in part for assistance for those who lose their jobs as a result of federal trade deals, such as the controversial Trans- Pacific Partnership, which is being weighed by Congress.

Here is the view of Collins, a longtime businessman, on the TPP. In a letter to constituents, he said the “proposal will hurt American jobs … I oppose … fast-track authority to negotiate free trade agreements and will vote against any bill that ships Western New York jobs overseas.”