By DAVID HILL
WASHINGTON (Sept. 25, 2008)—A bill to authorize $1.5 billion in funding for the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority's Metro system is now in the hands of the U.S. Senate.
The funding, part of the Rail Safety Improvement Act, would help pay for maintenance of Metro's subway and bus systems over the next 10 years.
The House passed the bill Wednesday night, two days after Metro General Manager John Catoe said the system needs $11.3 billion for improvements over the next 10 years.
The $1.5 billion would be an important step toward that total, said Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel. The funding is needed to replace and repair aging infrastructure and meet increasing ridership demands. Metro estimates that from 2010 to 2020, Metrorail and Metrobus ridership will increase by 22 percent and 9 percent respectively.
The bill was passed through the House unanimously, but it could face stronger opposition in the Senate.
In the past, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has opposed the supplemental Metro funding, believing the nation's taxpayers shouldn't pay for a regional transit system. He has placed holds on previous attempts to get the funding approved.
Most Senate bills never see a vote, but instead are passed by unanimous consent. If a senator objects, he or she may place a hold on the bill. This usually launches a lengthy period of negotiation and floor debate that can delay a bill for a considerable period of time, or sometimes kill the measure.
Since entering office in 2005, Coburn has held more than 80 bills that he believed to include wasteful spending, earning the obstetrician the nickname "Dr. No." He and Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., have butted heads on the topic of Metro funding.
"Senator Cardin has repeatedly pointed out to Senator Coburn and the rest of his colleagues that this is not just another public transportation system," said Cardin's communications director, Sue Walitsky. "This is one that the federal government and its employees rely on every single day."
Coburn has not yet decided whether he will hold the bill, said his press secretary, Don Tatro. But Coburn will review the legislation carefully.
"Congress really needs to start prioritizing spending," said Tatro. "We haven't seen a final draft of this and we're waiting to see how it comes over."
Cardin is leading efforts to get a vote by Friday, Congress' scheduled adjournment. Walitsky pointed out that Coburn has allowed passage of several spending bills this week that he previously blocked, which could speak well for the bill's chances.
"Senator Cardin has been working with his colleagues to get this through," she said. "I can't make any predictions but we're in a good place."
While the bill would authorize Metro funding, to get the full amount, Maryland, Washington and Virginia would have to combine to match it. Only Virginia has not yet agreed.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.