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

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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