On Wednesday evening the Senate passed H.R. 2095, the Federal Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which authorizes $1.5 billion of federal funding for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to improve deteriorating infrastructure.

The bill, which passed three times in the House of Representatives, finally cleared the Senate in a 72-24 vote, after previously being blocked. The legislation now travels to President Bush.

“Metro is back on track. Today we have taken a giant leap forward in securing dedicated funding for Metro so that it can meet the needs of the federal government, the millions of tourists who visit our nation’s capital and the businesses that rely on the country’s second-busiest rapid transit system. This is good for our region and good for our nation,” Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) said in a press release. “I am pleased that we were able to put ideology aside to renew and maintain such a vital source of strength for our region.”

The bill provides that $1.5 billion of federal funds be given to the weakening Metro system over a 10-year period, beginning in 2009.

Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia must also commit $50 million a year, matching the federal grant. The money will largely go toward buying new capital and repairing aging infrastructure. Another component of H.R. 2095 is that within one year, the 20 most-traveled Metro stations will have cellular coverage for all carriers.

“These capital dollars will certainly help in terms of fixing crumbling platforms. We can replace 30-plus-year-old railcars that are showing their age and we’ll be able to buy more buses to improve Metro access,” Steven Taubenkibel, Metro spokesperson, said.

This legislation also establishes an Office of the Inspector General of the Transit Authority as well as four additional federal member positions, two voting and two non-voting, to be added to the current board of directors of Metro. This will ensure that there is proper oversight and that the money is used effectively.

“Every bit of it is critical in terms of oversight for the Transit Agency. It is certainly the overall passage of what the Senate did last night that acknowledges that Metro is vital to the region and our government,” Taubenkibel said.

According to WMATA, Metrorail and Metrobus serve 3.5 million people between the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia. There are a total 86 stations on the 106.3-mile network. Forty-two percent of those who work in Washington, D.C., and Arlington, Va., use mass transit to commute.

“It is not like SEPTA or MARTA, because it is not just a local thing, even though they all receive federal funding,” said Brian McNicoll, communication director for Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.). “It has federal responsibilities in the way that others do not.”

ost of the opposition that the bill faced was rooted in the idea that this funding would be an earmark, and that the legislation was combined with largely popular safety improvement measures in order to ensure safe passage.

“.In what has become a frequent occurrence in this Congress, the majority has unnecessarily combined two bills – one that I support and one that I don’t – in order to ensure quick passage of both bills. As a result, I must weigh the two bills together. Of course, I want to improve rail safety. However, I cannot support a rail safety bill when it is combined with a bill that is essentially a $13.1-billion taxpayer subsidy to Amtrak,” Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said on the floor.

Local Virginia and Maryland leaders were the major proponents of the bill in the Senate. In the House, Davis, who is retiring this year, has been one of the leaders in the fight for dedicated federal funding for the Metro.

“[Davis] has done a lot of things to make Washington a better place to live, including D.C. College Access Act. It’s is a nice capper that Metro will now have a consistent source of funding,” McNicoll said. “In the past they’ve always had to scramble and beg for money. Now it is set up, and it is a great thing.”

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