Congress has cleared a passenger rail funding and safety bill that authorizes $13 billion over five years for Amtrak and $1.5 billion over 10 years for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Final congressional approval came on Oct. 1, when the Senate passed the measure, by a 74-24 vote.

President Bush signed the bill into law on Oct. 16.

Amtrak President and CEO Alex Kummant said, "The work on this authorization bill spanned nearly three congresses and does change the existing conditions for Amtrak, the rail industry and the states." He added, "Apart from safety enhancements, the bill creates for the first time a state and federal funding partnership which places rail passenger service on a more equal footing with other modes, and encourages rail corridor development."

The bill's Amtrak authorization includes $5.3 billion for the railroad's capital programs. The annual capital allotment would rise from $715 million in fiscal 2009 to $1.325 billion in 2013. But the bill's funding is in the form of authorizations and Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black says that the funds need to be included in upcoming annual appropriation bills. Amtrak's fiscal 2007 federal appropriation for capital items was $521 million.

Amtrak has substantial infrastructure needs, including track, signaling, tunnels, bridge decks, "and in some cases entire bridges need to be replaced," says Black. He mentions a bridge over the Niantic River in Connecticut, which Amtrak would like to replace. He also says the railroad would like to carry out a major upgrade of a Connecticut River bridge. At this point, Black says Amtrak isn't certain whether it will replace bridge components or build a new bridge adjacent to the existing one.

The legislation also calls for Amtrak to produce a capital-spending plan to bring its Northeast Corridor "to a state of good repair" by the end of fiscal 2018.

The bill has provisions aimed at boosting high-speed rail, including $1.5 billion over five yearsr in grants for states or Amtrak itself to build high-speed projects in any of 11 designated corridors. In a provision championed by Mica, the bill allows the DOT secretary to recommend to Congress private-sector proposals for high-speed-rail lines in those corridors.

For Washington Metro, the bill directs that funds go for "capital and preventive maintenance projects" in the agency's capital plan and requires the District of Columbia and other jurisdictions in the area to provide matching funds. The legislation also specifies that WMATA may use the new authorizations "only for "maintenance and upkeep" and bars use of the funds "to increase the mileage of the rail system."

Besides the Amtrak and WMATA funding, the measure is "the most significant reform and advancement of rail safety in 100 years," House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) said at an Oct. 2 press conference. Among other safety provisions, it require use of positive train control in passenger rail and some hazardous-material freight trains. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) cited the recent fatal rail accident in Chatsworth, Calif., as one reason why the bill was approved. "If that doesn't bring to mind safety, nothing will," Lautenberg told reporters.