WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia revived concerns on Thursday about the crumbling infrastructure in the United States and Washington's failure to address the problem, with U.S. House Speaker John Boehner lashing out at Democrats who linked the two.
Boehner, a Republican, said Democrats were wrong to suggest that Amtrak funding cuts were partly to blame for the train crash on Tuesday that killed eight people.
Dismissing a reporter's question about Amtrak's budget in light of the accident as "stupid," he said the passenger service's safety programs were adequately funded.
"Obviously, it's not about funding," the Republican leader told a news conference.
"The train was going twice the speed limit. Adequate funds were there, no funding has been cut from rail safety and the House passed a bill earlier this spring to reauthorize Amtrak and authorize a lot of these programs."
But rail experts and Democrats contend that Amtrak budget cuts have caused delays to the installation of "positive train control" technology, which can automatically slow or stop a train to prevent an accident.
Although Congress in 2008 mandated it for all rail lines by the end of 2015, it was not deployed on the rail yard curve where the train derailed.
"There's a lot we don't know, but it does appear clear that if there was this positive train control technology deployed throughout the corridor, particularly around this curve, which has been historically dangerous, that the crash could have been prevented or could have been mitigated," said Robert Puentes, an infrastructure expert at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution in Washington.
Senator Charles Schumer, the Senate's third-ranking Democrat, called Boehner's comments "patently false" and said insufficient funding has delayed positive train control.
"To deny a connection between the accident and underfunding Amtrak is to deny reality," the New York Democrat added.
President Barack Obama called for more investment in infrastructure.
"We are a growing country with a growing economy. We need to invest in the infrastructure that keeps us that way. And not just when something bad happens, like a bridge collapse or a train derailment, but all the time," he said at a news conference at Camp David in Maryland.
In an apparent change of heart, Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte said Congress should re-examine the timing of adoption of positive train control and asked the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee to schedule a hearing on the issue.
Ayotte was a co-sponsor of legislation passed by the committee that would have given the rail industry five more years, until 2020, to deploy the technology.
"The committee should use this hearing to examine the circumstances of the crash in Philadelphia and revisit the issue," Ayotte wrote in a letter to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota.
The Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday approved a $262 million cut in Amtrak's capital investment programs as part of a $54 billion spending bill for transportation and housing programs.
Tensions on infrastructure funding were rising as a May 31 deadline approached to renew federal Highway Trust Fund spending authority for road, bridge and rail transit projects.
Boehner joined other lawmakers on Thursday in acknowledging only a short-term extension of the fund could be arranged by May 31. Some lawmakers pressed for only a two-month extension, while others want to extend transportation authority until the end of 2015.
Additional reporting by Patrick Rucker and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Lisa Shumaker