Muckraker: Grist on Politics

The House passed a bill yesterday to allocate nearly $15 billion to Amtrak, a move intended to give travelers an alternative as gas prices soar. The bill, which would authorize funding for the passenger railroad for the next five years, passed by a vote of 311-104 — a veto-proof margin.

Within the funding package, $14.9 billion goes to Amtrak, intercity rail services, and a grant program to help states create or expand rail service. Another $1.5 billion would be used to support Washington, D.C.’s Metro transit system over the next 10 years.

“The bill aims in a number of ways to improve and expand U.S. passenger-train service,” National Association of Rail Passengers Executive Director Ross Capon said in a statement. “The bill will allow for significant investment in rolling stock and tracks, including the addition of needed track capacity at some key chokepoints where Amtrak and freight trains both suffer delays.”

The last funding authorization for Amtrak expired in 2002; these new funds would allow the rail service to make long-range plans, including planning for the predicted uptick in ridership as fuel prices rise.

President George Bush has threatened to veto the bill, largely because he thinks Amtrak should be able to exist without public funds. But Congress might be able to override. A similar piece of legislation passed the Senate last fall, also by a veto-proof margin.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who has in the past been a vocal critic of Amtrak, partnered with Transportation Committee Chair James Oberstar (D-Minn.) to draft the House legislation. He spoke in favor of it on the House floor yesterday: “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.”