U.S. News

House OKs money for rail, infrastructure bank

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - High-speed rail projects would receive a $2 billion boost under a bill passed by the House of Representatives on Thursday that also lays the groundwork for a national infrastructure bank.

By a vote of 256-168, the House approved $68.8 billion for transportation and housing projects for the fiscal year starting October 1, a 25 percent increase over 2009 funding levels.

The Democratic-led chamber turned back several attempts to slash funding by Republicans, who said Congress had already generously funded transportation and housing programs in the $787 billion economic stimulus bill passed in February.

“There was a time when we talked about billions, and now it’s trillions rolling off the tips of our tongues,” said Republican Representative Jeb Hensarling.

Democrats said the increase was needed to upgrade a fraying transportation system and help those struggling to make ends meet during a deep recession and a housing crisis.

The money for high-speed, intercity rail projects was twice the amount requested by the Obama administration and would come on top of $8 billion signed into law earlier this year as part of the stimulus bill.

President Barack Obama is promoting high-speed rail networks like those long popular in Europe and Asia, and he plans to present a detailed plan in October. On top of the other funding, he has requested an additional $1 billion annually over the next five years for high-speed rail projects.

The spending bill passed by the House actually sets out $4 billion for high-speed rail, but Democratic officials expect to transfer half of that total to a national infrastructure bank that would give grants and make loans for large-scale transportation projects, another Obama priority.

“That is the most important transportation initiative since the Eisenhower interstate highway system,” said Democratic Representative John Olver, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that wrote the bill.

The measure also includes $150 million for the Washington, D.C., subway system, which has been reeling from a crash that killed nine people in June.

The Senate has yet to take up work on its version of the must-pass spending bill. The House and Senate will have to reconcile any differences before sending a final bill to Obama to sign into law.

The bill increases funds for public housing, including $24.9 billion for housing vouchers for the poor, an increase of 11 percent over 2009 levels.

The bill also extends through fiscal 2010 expanded loan limits for mortgages that can be financed by the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which were adopted to aid the shattered housing market.

Editing by Peter Cooney