WASHINGTON – A nearly $15 billion Amtrak bill passed the House Wednesday as lawmakers rallied around an alternative for travelers saddled with soaring gas prices.
The bipartisan bill, which passed by a veto-proof margin of 311-104, 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.
The White House has threatened a veto, saying the bill doesn’t hold Amtrak accountable for its spending. But 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. The railroad’s supporters say a new authorization will allow Amtrak to make long-range plans and take advantage of what they say is a growing appetite for passenger rail.
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. The idea has long been championed by Mica, who says the United States must catch up with European and Asian countries on high-speed rail travel.
Critics say the proposal would undermine Amtrak by peeling off its most valuable asset, the Northeast Corridor.
But Pennsylvania congressman Bill Shuster said provisions such as the one that open the door to private investment should help ease the concerns of fellow Republicans who have balked at supporting Amtrak.
But those provisions could complicate things when the House tries to work out a compromise bill with the Senate.
Amtrak said it was pleased that both 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.
The Bush administration and other Amtrak critics want to see the company move toward self-sufficiency, but Amtrak supporters say passenger railroads around the globe require government subsidies and point to the large sums of federal money spent on highways.
A bid by Rep. Geoff Davis, R-Ky., to send the bill back to committee to add an alternative fuel study was rejected.
“In the areas where American budgets are being hardest hit by gas prices, consuming 16 percent of gross incomes, they have very little access to Amtrak,” Davis said. “How does this bill help those Americans deal with our energy crisis?”
Amtrak’s boosters say the high cost of driving has made people eager for more and better rail service.
A record 25.8 million passengers took Amtrak in the last fiscal year. The railroad expects ridership to approach 28 million this year, 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 marketing research indicates that about half the increase can be attributed to gas prices.
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