The House voted yesterday to override President Bush's veto of an Amtrak reauthorization bill that includes a provision that would clear the way for commuter rail service between Northern Virginia and the District.
Fifty-eight Republicans joined 236 Democrats in the 294-to-123 vote to override the veto.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) predicted a close vote when the Senate also considers the veto, probably next week. A two-thirds vote by both chambers is necessary to override a veto. Congress has not overturned any of Bush's 10 previous vetoes.
Bush rejected the Amtrak bill last month, his first veto of 1990, over a provision that would require the Interstate Commerce Commission to review proposed acquisitions of major freight railroads by companies that are not in the railroad business. In his veto message, Bush called that mandate "an unprecedented new regulatory review requirement and . . . a step backward for the entire rail industry."
"Sometimes you wonder why you're here," Rep. Thomas J. Tauke (R-Iowa) told his colleagues during yesterday's debate. "I don't know what was in the minds of those down at the White House when they decided to veto this piece of legislation." Tauke, who is running for the Senate this fall, called the ICC review "a pretty common-sense approach . . . . It simply closes a loophole in the law."
The bill also includes language exempting Conrail from liability in accidents involving Virginia Railway Express commuter trains on Conrail tracks. That provision is the last major hurdle for the commuter rail operation that is expected to take 4,000 daily round-trip passengers off Northern Virginia's teeming highways -- the equivalent of adding another lane to Interstate 95-beginning in October 1991.
Without the exemption, Conrail will not allow the trains from Fredericksburg and Manassas to cross the Potomac River into the District and Union Station. In that case, the northern terminus would be Crystal City and projected ridership would drop to about 2,680 a day.
Most of the track the commuter service plans to use is owned by Norfolk Southern and Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac railroads, but the final miles in the District belong to Conrail. Virginia Railway Express expects to operate eight daily round trips -- four each between the District and Manassas and between the District and Fredericksburg -- with stops at 16 intermediate stations.