Congress threw down on rail today in a big way:
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 US Senate also passed an Amtrak reauthorization by a veto-proof majority. But there are some big differences between the House and Senate versions, and as Congressional Quarterly reports it might not find an easy resolution:
The $14.4 billion reauthorization measure passed 311-104, but future prospects for the legislation are less certain. An expected conference committee with the Senate could be tough...
Republicans acquiesced in the price tag exchange for language prompting privatization of a high-speed rail line in the Northeast Corridor.
The line between Washington and New York would move passengers between the metropolitan cities in less than two hours. Private companies would bid on the construction of the line, which lead proponent John L. Mica , R-Fla., says is a gold mine....
The Senate version does not have privatization language and Amtrak supporters in that chamber, such as Frank R. Lautenberg , D-N.J., are unlikely to accept it easily.
Let's be clear: the Acela, and any HSR line between DC and NY, should not be privatized. Amtrak runs that line quite efficiently. It has grabbed 40% of the market share on the Northeast Corridor and its ridership is rising dramatically. Acela could be improved, but not by privatization - instead by upgrading the overhead catenaries and the tracks so that the system can provide even faster service.
Still, the votes are a significant vote of confidence in passenger rail. It should suggest to Californians that Congress is very interested in supporting our own high speed rail project - and that as Democrats will gain much larger majorities in Congress this November, and with a President Obama (we hope), passenger and high speed rail will get enormous federal subsidies.
It would be nice if California's Senators - Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein - would step up and direct some of this money to our own HSR project, even if it's just a few million dollars, as a sign of support and to help shore up political support ahead of the November vote. But let there be no mistake - the feds are ready to invest in high speed rail. It's now California's turn to step up and do the same.