How Congress Escapes Blame.

Just say the words, “unfunded mandate” to any state or local government official and note the sour expression that appears on their face. As the term implies, that’s when the federal government directs you to do something–invariably something that’s going to cost a lot of money–but they don’t kick in any federal dollars to help get it done. It happens a lot.

A big unfunded mandate at the moment is the one the feds laid on the nation’s railroads in the aftermath of a deadly commuter train crash several years ago in California. All railroads were directed by Congress to install something called Positive Train Control across their networks. It’s a complex system involving computers and global positioning and it will counteract human error and keep trains from derailing or running into each other.
So far, best estimates are that the freight railroads have already spent $8 billion complying with the PTC mandate and they’ve still got another $2 billion to go. To those numbers, you can add another $3.5 billion that the PTC system is costing the passenger railroads and, as the late Senator Everett Dirkson supposedly said, “pretty soon it adds up to real money!”
I mention PTC because a preliminary finding by the National Transportation Safety Board is that PTC would probably have prevented the recent Amtrak derailment near Tacoma, Washington. Well, that’s comforting.
There are other possible factors, including divided responsibilities between the State of Washington’s Department of Transportation and Amtrak. Pretty classic: a major screw-up occurs and everybody points at someone else.
And there was also an artificial deadline—a date certain by which some specific tasks relating to the new By-Pass had to be completed or a bunch of federal dollars would have to be returned to Washington. And so, apparently, there was  rush to finish.
The STB is still at work, but without doubt their final report will include those issues and blame will be assigned. But I’ll bet “unfunded mandate” won’t be found anywhere in there.