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Inhofe Questions Transit and Bike-Ped Investments in House Transport Bill

7:35 AM PDT on March 19, 2010

The senior Republican on the Senate environment panel today criticized
the House's six-year transportation
bill
, lamenting that the measure "focus[es] very heavily on
transit, bike paths, and sidewalks" and carves out a strong federal role
in "decisions historically left to the state level."

Inhofe's concerns, raised at the latest in the environment
committee's series of hearings aimed at marshaling consensus for a new
long-term transport bill, suggest that the increased transit, bike-ped,
and urban policy investments envisioned by the House measure could face
resistance from rural senators who fear less of a federal emphasis on
roads.

"We cannot grow the program in urban areas while ignoring the
rural component," Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) said, describing rail and
bike usage as "geographically and climatically prohibitive" in his
state, currently the nation's least-populated.

Environment committee chief Barbara Boxer (D-CA) assured Barrasso
that "I don't look at writing this bill as rural versus urban." Yet the
House legislation offered by transportation committee chairman Jim
Oberstar (D-MN) would direct significant funding to urban infrastructure
needs through a new metropolitan mobility program, a prospect that
appeared to unsettle rural lawmakers.

"I don't feel like transit is a great option in our rural areas,"
said Oklahoma state senator Bryce Marlatt, an invited witness. After
Inhofe questioned the Oberstar framework's emphasis on bike-ped and
transit spending, Marlatt warned that the House plan could prevent rural
areas from joining "the global economy" by boosting road spending.

Alternative perspectives were offered by John
Robert Smith
, president of the transit advocacy group Reconnecting
America, and Scott Haggerty, a supervisor in California's Alameda County
who appeared on behalf of the National Association of Counties (NACo).

Smith told senators that the green-transport and land-use grants
offered by the Obama administration's multi-agency sustainability office
should be open to cities with populations of 50,000 or below, giving
rural areas more of an opportunity to compete for federal aid.

Haggerty, for his part, noted that the "overwhelming majority of
congestion comes in metro areas" and advised that any project getting
funding from Oberstar's proposed urban mobility program should be able
to document its benefits for commuters.

Even as the rural-urban debate unfolded, senators sought to steer
the hearing towards the fundamental issue stalling progress on a
replacement for the 2005 federal transportation law: how
to pay for it
.

"In terms of infrastructure, our roads and bridges are not getting
any better if we neglect them," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said. "We're
going to have to address this problem one way or another; we might as
well do it and create jobs."

Asked for their thoughts on transportation financing, Haggerty
said NACo would back a gas-tax increase -- an option ruled out by the
White House for the foreseeable future -- and Smith cited a poll
commissioned by Transportation for America that found public support for
more infrastructure spending, provided that it was approved in a
transparent fashion.

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