Congresswoman Chellie Pingree voted for last-minute legislation today that will both extend lower rates on subsidized student loans and at the same time preserve critical funding for the Amtrak Downeaster and the METRO bus service in Portland.
The rail and bus funding was extended as part of a major transportation bill that was passed by the House this afternoon. The bill is expected to pass the Senate and be sent to the President for his signature this weekend.
"Letting the rates double this Sunday would have been a big hit for thousands of families and students who are already struggling to pay for college," Pingree said.
"The federal funding that Downeaster and METRO bus service have been getting over the years has been essential to their operation and to cut it off now, when state and local budgets are tight, would have been devastating," Pingree said.
The Downeaster passenger rail service has been getting about $6 million a year in Congestion Mitigation Air Quality (CMAQ) funding. CMAQ funding is intended to support projects for a maximum of three years, but Congress has consistently granted waiversallowing the funding to continue for the Downeaster and other similar rail lines around the country.
Pingree and Congressman Mike Michaud wrote legislation to protect that funding but House Republican leaders refused to allow the bill to come up for a vote. Instead, the provision was included in a Senate version of the transportation bill, and in negotiations with the House, Congressional leaders agreed this week to keep the provision in the final version of the bill.
Portland stood to lose access to federal funding for operation of the METRO bus service. Under current rules, when an urban area surpasses 200,000 people, federal transit funding can no longer be used for operational expenses of services like METRO.
Pingree supported language that carved out an exception for transit systems that operate fewer than 100 buses.
Pingree said she was disappointed that Congress couldn't pass this legislation sooner.
"We shouldn't have had to wait until the eleventh hour to save these critical programs but at least they have been preserved," Pingree said.