By DAVID HILL
WASHINGTON (Oct. 3, 2008)—The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is a step away from a $1.5 billion federal funding infusion for its Metro system, after a successful Senate vote Wednesday night.
The Senate passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 by a 74-24 vote. President Bush will likely sign the bill into law.
The legislation provides funding to Metro on the condition that it is used to maintain the existing system and not to add new tracks or stations. Metro plans to buy and maintain rail cars and buses and renovate stations in need of repair, said Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel.
"We have some stations where platforms outside are being held up by two-by-fours," he said. "We've got (rail) cars that are close to 35 years old. And those cars have to be replaced."
The bill would also require that Metro expand cell phone coverage to assure service at its 20 busiest stops within the next year and install service at all stops within four years.
"We're very grateful for the efforts of our congressional delegation," Taubenkibel said. "It's an acknowledgement by many in Congress that Metro is vital not only to the workings of the region but in particular to the federal government."
Metro funding was one of many stipulations in the legislation, which also mandates collision-preventing technology and additional rest for rail employees. It comes in the wake of the Sept. 12 collision between a commuter train and freight train that killed 25 in Los Angeles.
The bill would require all Class I freight, passenger and commuter railroads implement positive train control systems, or PTCs, by Dec. 31, 2015. PTCs can electronically detect, and possibly prevent, conditions of a collision or derailment.
Some rail officials have expressed concern, arguing that PTCs are too expensive and unreliable to implement by the deadline. But Metro already has technology in place that would likely satisfy requirements, said Metro spokeswoman Angela Gates.
"We already actually have an automatic train protection system . . . which automatically slows down and stops trains to maintain a safe distance," she said. "We pretty much are ready."
For the government to award the money, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia must match it with $1.5 billion of their own, with each jurisdiction paying $500 million apiece.
Virginia's ability to pay has been in question since the state Supreme Court stripped the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority of its ability to impose and collect taxes on the grounds that the NVTA board of directors was appointed rather than elected. The February ruling erased more than $300 million in expected revenue for state transportation projects.
Despite the setback, Virginia will pay the $500 million, said Gordon Hickey, spokesman for Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine. The state's plan is to use money redirected from other transportation projects.
"Virginia does not leave earmarked money on the table," Hickey said. "It's not like we're going to take one project and kill it or anything. It would be a little here and a little there."
As some anticipated, the bill met resistance from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who placed a hold on the legislation Friday, making it the most recent of more than 80 spending bills that he has held since 2005.
Coburn said he approved of many of the bill's safety reforms, but objected to what he considered wasteful funding, most notably the $1.5 billion for Metro and almost $13.1 billion for Amtrak.
The Senate was able to get around Coburn's hold Monday by voting for cloture. When approved by 60 senators, cloture limits consideration of a bill to no more than 30 additional hours. The motion passed, 69-17, clearing the way for Wednesday's vote.
"I am pleased that we were able to put ideology aside," Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said in a statement. "This is good for our region and good for our nation."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.