WASHINGTON - The House voted yesterday to authorize $60 million in federal funding to study a way around a 135-year-old rail tunnel that imposes speed and height restrictions on modern passenger and freight trains as they pass through Baltimore.
Lawmakers approved the money as part of a $14.9 billion bill to reauthorize Amtrak for the next five years. The 311-104 vote far exceeded the two-thirds necessary to override a veto threatened by the White House, which said the bill lacked "basic measures" to hold the national passenger rail service accountable for its spending.
The Senate has approved a similar bill, also by a veto-proof margin.
"This is very good for us," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who championed the funding to study bypassing the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel. The 7,700-foot passageway, which runs under Bolton Hill, Madison Park and Upton west of Penn Station, is a choke point for rail traffic along the Northeast Corridor.
"When you talk about a tunnel that was built in 1873, it just doesn't have what is needed for these high-speed trains," said Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
An average of 135 trains pass each weekday through the tunnel, which is used primarily by the Amtrak and MARC passenger lines but also by the Norfolk Southern freight system.
The bill would authorize $60 million over the next five years for environmental studies of possible rail realignments through Baltimore. Congress could begin appropriating installments next year.
Rerouting rail lines through Baltimore is anticipated to cost billions of dollars.
The Amtrak bill also authorizes $1.5 billion over 10 years to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority for maintenance and improvements to the Metro subway system. The federal money, which may not be used to extend the current system, is to be matched by Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer called the Washington Metro a "critical national and regional asset."
"Not only is it indispensable as a transit system for residents of and visitors to the nation's capital," the Southern Maryland Democrat said, "it is an essential component of the region's emergency evacuation plans."
Daily ridership on the Metro has increased as gasoline prices have climbed. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat, said fuel cost increases "make access to reliable public transportation more important than ever."
The House and Senate now will work to reconcile their versions of the Amtrak bill. The White House issued a statement this week saying that it would recommend the president veto the House version because it authorizes unprecedented federal funding for the rail service "without requiring any meaningful reforms in Amtrak's governance or operations."