House OKs $14.9B passenger-rail bill


A $14.9 billion passenger-rail authorization bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday designates a Cleveland-Toledo-Chicago corridor among 10 across the country as eligible for capital grants for facilities or train equipment to support new or improved intercity trains.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur had issued a statement praising the bill's passage and highlighting her insistence that a corridor through Toledo was included in its capital-funding provision, although the House roll call shows the Toledo Democrat did not vote on it.

"It's unfortunate. It happens once in a while. Not very often," said Steve Fought, a spokesman for Miss Kaptur.

She'd stepped outside the Capitol to meet a group of students from Timberstone Junior High School in Sylvania who are visiting Washington, he said.

But the students were delayed at Union Station, and "by the time she was able to scramble back in to vote, the time expired," Mr. Fought said. "She's unhappy it happened that way."

He added that staff should have made sure she got back for the vote.

The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act passed the House, 311-104, a veto-proof margin, and now must be reconciled with a Senate version before being sent to President Bush, who has vowed to veto the bill.

When the vote comes to override the expected veto, "she's not going to miss that one, no matter what," Mr. Fought said.

Included in the bill's authorizations are $3 billion in operating funds for Amtrak and $4.2 billion in capital grants, including $1.75 billion in competitive grants for service development. States served by the corridors or Amtrak would be required to provide a match of up to 20 percent.

According to a statement issued by the National Association of Railroad Passengers, the bill specifically identifies the Chicago-northwest Indiana section of the Toledo-Chicago line as a "chokepoint" eligible for federal funding to add track capacity. Heavily used by freight trains, that congested stretch of track is a chronic source of delay for Amtrak trains operating between Toledo or southeast Michigan and the Windy City.

"High speed rail can help revitalize our economy in northern Ohio and make us more competitive in the world," Miss Kaptur said in her statement. "We must build forward in such innovative sectors so that we can leave future generations real wealth - the kind of wealth that cannot be outsourced and will nourish the American economy for years to come."

Toledo has had Ohio's busiest Amtrak stop for years, although during this decade the numbers have declined as service has been cut and become increasingly unreliable. According to the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, 70,152 people got on or off Amtrak trains in Toledo last year, down from 76,106 the year before and from 85,734 in 2002, even as ridership has grown on other Amtrak routes.

Mr. Fought conceded that the bill, if enacted either by President Bush's signature or a veto override, is no guarantee that passenger-rail service through Toledo will be enhanced. But the legislation is still a vital step, he said.

"This is the authorizing part, not the appropriating part," he said.

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.

For the immediate future, the bill directs the U.S. Department of Transportation to request proposals for projects to develop higher-speed service in the Washington-New York corridor, currently owned and operated by Amtrak.

That highly populated route currently has stretches of 135-mph track, but also has bottlenecks that reduce average speeds below 100 mph and an electric-power system built during the early 20th century.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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