BLACKMON: The sequester kills

I woke up Sunday morning to a New York Times alert that sent me into a frenzy: Metro North had, once again, derailed. This time they were reporting at least four dead with dozens of injuries, many of them critical.

Like many Yalies that day, I immediately began texting or calling any of my friends that might have been on that train, ready for the worst. Luckily, it was an early morning train with sparse riders, and it wasn’t even the New Haven line anyway. But the incident frightened many people, including my own mother, whom I had just two days prior finally (after much struggle) convinced Metro North was a safe alternative to CT Limo. And, even if no one I knew was affected, four people were dead.

Unfortunately this wasn’t the first time I had seen horror stories of Metro North’s dilapidated condition. On May 17 of this year, two trains on the New Haven line of Metro North collided head-on. The result: 73 injuries, five critical, $18.5 million in damages. On July 18, a freight train derailed in the same Spuyten Duyvil area as this Sunday’s crash, spilling municipal garbage and shutting down the Hudson line for two weeks. And now this.

Such damages are tragic because we could have prevented them.

Back in 2011, when the Tea Party played games with the debt ceiling, President Obama was forced to agree to a budget that set into place draconian, automatic cuts to several departments in a spending-cuts approach to deficit reduction. But few thought these cuts, which would take effect on Jan. 1, 2013, would ever actually occur. Surely, we thought, cooler heads would prevail. Surely Democrats and Republicans would come together and pass a comprehensive budget in 2012, avoid these cuts and take a responsible approach to deficit reduction that included both spending cuts and revenue increases.

But this Congress is nothing if not irresponsible. We should all be aware that tragedies like the derailed train on Sunday are indirect results of Congressional inaction. By the end of the year, the Department of Transportation will take a $1.9 billion hit from the sequester. In a time when we need to be increasing funding for the safety of America’s crumbling infrastructure, the sequester has forced the agency to cut essential safety programs in everything from airways to rail to bridges. In fact, if not for some last-minute political maneuvering on the part of Connecticut’s senators, Tweed airport’s air traffic control tower would have been the latest victim of these senseless cuts. Other programs have not been so lucky.

But it gets worse. Following the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy last October, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority needed emergency relief funds quickly to restore rail service to the Northeast and, perhaps more importantly, to protect MTA rail from future disasters. Then the sequester hit — blocking $545 million in infrastructure funding, which the MTA needed to bolster the safety of our trains.

Such a fiasco may shed light on a hearing in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 6, in which Metro North’s chief engineer Robert Puciloski told policymakers the maintenance of Metro North’s rails were “behind in several areas” — not even a month before those very trains killed four people and seriously injured dozens more.

After the first derailment in May, Sen. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 called for increased transportation funding, saying, “Metro North is just the most visible and recent of the evidence that much more substantial investment is needed.”

Even as our policymakers, like Sen. Blumenthal, call for increased infrastructure funding, the sequester is cutting the already meager funds we have now. And of course this is to say nothing of the other agencies losing funds, including the millions of dollars research scientists are losing across the country (and here at Yale) that could be used to find life-saving cures and treatments for the sick.

But for some reason, both Republicans and even Democrats seem to have shied away from sounding the alarms on the sequester’s effects. Though President Obama argued forcefully for restoration earlier this year, the political discourse has shifted almost exclusively to the Affordable Care Act. But make no mistake, the sequester is here, and it is killing people.

Until both Republicans and Democrats come back to the table and negotiate a real solution to the sequester, perhaps my mother is right — maybe we should be afraid to ride Metro North.

Tyler Blackmon is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at tyler.blackmon@yale.edu.

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