WASHINGTON – A nearly $15 billion Amtrak bill passed the House on 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.