What's happened to our country? Infrastructure used to be our thing. We built roads, bridges, tunnels and ports linking our country, and our system was an envy. Now we're falling sadly behind.
And everyone knows it. It's the highways we traverse and the trains we ride, and we make comparisons when we go overseas. Once in a while, we're forced to confront it -- like when a speeding Amtrak train derails in Philadelphia and kills eight people.
At this point, human behavior seems to have played a role. But it's also true an override slowdown system called positive train control would have prevented the carnage had it been installed. It's in place on certain sections of Amtrak's busy Northeast Corridor, but not where Amtrak 188 hurtled into the night.CartoonCartoon: Rail corridorsEditorialEditorial: Derailment did not have to happenCartoonMatt Davies' latest cartoon: Hourglass
Amtrak has been slow meeting a federal law to install the technology by the end of 2015, a congressional mandate prompted by a 2008 crash in California that killed 25 people when a train operator who was texting blew a red light. But Amtrak, which now says the override system will be in place on time in the Northeast Corridor if not elsewhere, is ahead of the rest of the country's railroads.
One reason among many for Amtrak's slowness is funding. China, whose high-speed trains are a wonder, spends $128 billion a year on rail transport. But the House of Representatives this week -- as first responders were still pulling bodies from mangled cars -- voted to slash its $1.4 billion subsidy for Amtrak by nearly 20 percent. That's unconscionable.
The bottom line: 50 years ago, the United States spent about 5 percent of our gross domestic product on infrastructure; now it's half that. Europe still spends about what we used to as a percentage of GDP, and China twice that.
We're crumbling. And the warning signs are everywhere.
61,000 bridges -- more than 10 percent of U.S. spans -- are structurally deficient.
It would cost $3.6 trillion to make all our roads, railways and airports safe and sound.
The United States ranks 12th worldwide in infrastructure quality, behind much of Europe and several Far East countries.
Amtrak's Acela train, the nation's only high-speed train, averages about 80 mph from Washington to New York. High-speed rail from Madrid to Barcelona averages 154 mph. Trains in China and Japan can top 200 mph.
Better infrastructure means better jobs growth and more investment. That's as bipartisan as it gets. But Congress, especially this Congress, doesn't respond to that kind of wake-up call.
Look, sometimes you just plain need something. And you have to pay for it, as painful as that might be. Most of us, when we can't afford it, put it on a credit card, get a loan or refinance the house and pay it off, or pick up a second job, whatever. The point is, we do something. But not Congress.
The federal gas tax, for example, pays for road and bridge work through the Highway Trust Fund. It's been flat at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, leading to a huge funding gap. No one has the political guts to suggest raising it, which happened even under Ronald Reagan. I don't like to argue for a tax increase, but we have to pay for what we need. Let's do it, index it to inflation, and start rebuilding our country.
Skepticism about cost overruns, endless delays and bureaucratic ineptitude is justified. That doesn't mean we should do nothing. It means we have to do it better.
Vice President Joe Biden last year disparagingly but correctly called LaGuardia a third-world airport. It's past time we get back to doing what we once did so well, before the rest of the world passes us by.
Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.