The victims of the deadly Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia earlier this year could receive more in damages thanks to a transportation bill working its way through Congress.
The House and Senate have reached agreement on a 5-year, $281 billion transportation bill that would increase spending to address the nation's aging and congested highways and transit systems — a legislative feat that lawmakers and President Barack Obama have struggled throughout his entire administration to achieve.
The bill also removes the cap on lawsuits from a single incident that limited the victims of the Amtrak 188 derailment on May 12 to $200 million in damages. The crash as a New York-bound train jumped the tracks at a sharp curve in Frankford killed eight and left more than 200 hurt.
Damage awards from the Amtrak derailment are expected to exceed the current cap.
Philadelphia-based attorneys Tom Kline and Robert Mongeluzzi -- who have filed lawsuits on behalf of some of the derailment victims -- praised the increase in the cap but questioned if it goes far enough.
"Unfortunately raising the cap to $295 million per single incident doesn’t eliminate or soften the pain suffered by the victims and their families as a result of the derailment," said Mongeluzzi, whose firm Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky represents 17 passengers. "But by raising the cap, Congress has acknowledged the victims’ suffering and taken an important step toward helping them obtain a financial recovery that will meaningfully help them go on with their lives."
"There is no question that today’s landmark vote is welcome news for all those who have horrifically suffered and continue to suffer as a result of the derailment," said Kline, whose firm Kline & Specter represents 11 plaintiffs, including two passengers who died. "Raising the outdated cap limit will hopefully help make Amtrak more responsible more fully accountable for the injuries the derailment has caused."
The cap increase is only part of the transportation legislation. The bill would also put an end to the cycle of temporary extensions and threatened shutdowns of transportation programs that have bedeviled Congress for the past seven years, making it difficult for states to plan long-term projects.
A draft the bill, which was filed by congressional negotiators Tuesday afternoon, boosts highway spending by 14.9 percent and transit spending by 18.1 percent over the life of the bill, said Jeff Davis, an expert on transportation spending with the nonprofit Eno Center for Transportation. The Congressional Budget Office isn't expected to provide official figures until later this week.
But the bill still falls far short of the $400 billion over six years that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has said is necessary to keep traffic congestion from worsening, and it puts off the difficult decision of how to pay for transportation programs in a way that's sustainable for the long term. The federal 18.4 cents a gallon gas tax, the main source of Highway Trust Fund revenues, hasn't been increased since 1993 and no longer is enough to cover annual spending on transportation programs.
The House and Senate must still vote on the final bill. Passage is expected by Friday, when authority for the government to process aid payments to states expires.