Thursday, June 12, 2008
A nearly $15 billion Amtrak bill passed the House yesterday as lawmakers rallied around an alternative for travelers saddled with soaring gas prices.
The bipartisan bill, which passed by a veto-proof 311 to 104, would authorize funding for the national passenger railroad over the next five years. Some of the money would go to a program of matching grants to help states set up or expand rail service.
Besides the $14.9 billion provided for Amtrak and intercity rail, an amendment to the bill would authorize $1.5 billion for Washington's Metro transit system over the next 10 years if Maryland, Virginia and the District provide matching funds. All three have pledged to do so.
The region's congressional delegation, especially Davis, has been trying for the last two years to seek a dedicated funding stream for Metro, the only major transit agency in the country without one. A similar measure is being blocked in the Senate by Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
The White House has threatened a veto, saying the House bill does not hold Amtrak accountable for its spending. Similar legislation has passed the Senate, also with enough support to override a veto.
"Nothing could be more fitting to bring before the Congress today, on a day when gasoline has reached $4.05 a gallon across the United States on average," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., a longtime Amtrak critic who teamed up with Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) on the legislation.
Amtrak's previous authorization expired in 2002.
Unlike the Senate version, the House bill includes a requirement for the Department of Transportation to seek proposals from private companies to create a high-speed service that would take travelers from Washington to New York City in two hours or less.
Critics say the proposal would undermine Amtrak by peeling off its most valuable asset, the Northeast Corridor.
Amtrak said it is pleased that the House and the Senate had acted.
"This reflects strong support for intercity passenger rail service, and we look forward to working with Congress as they move forward to reconcile a final authorization bill," spokesman Cliff Black said.
May was the biggest month in Amtrak's 37-year history, with total ridership up 12 percent over last year and ticket revenue up 16 percent over last year. Black said Amtrak's research indicates that about half the increase can be attributed to gas prices.
Staff writer Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.