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WASHINGTON - Opposing other Oklahoma lawmakers and Oklahoma City officials, Rep. Ernest Istook has told a key House appropriator that the federal government shouldn't spend money on a downtown rail system for the MAPS project.
"I do not believe this project is cost-justified, or a proper use of U.S. taxpayers' money under the guise of 'mass transit,' " Istook, R-Warr Acres, said in a letter to Rep. Frank Wolf, the Virginia Republican who is chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation.
Istook's comments come at a critical funding juncture for the downtown Oklahoma City project: a House-Senate conference committee is expected to meet this week on transportation spending.
Sen. Don Nickles, R-Ponca City, got $10 million put into the Senate bill to help pay for the fixed-rail loop. However, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne, was not able to get money for it into the House bill. The conference committee will decide whether the project gets any money this year.
Istook, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said Monday he didn't know whether his comments - contained in a two-page letter that faults the light rail proposal on several fronts - would have any influence on the conference committee.
"I'm asking the members of Congress to make the decision based on the merits of the project, not based on the influence of me or anyone else," he said.
Oklahoma City Mayor Ron Norick said Monday that Istook's letter "obviously doesn't help."
"I'll just have to count on Senator Nickles. He's supporting the project. It's basically our tax dollars."
Norick added that if the money isn't spent in Oklahoma City, it will be spent in another city.
Part of the $297 million Metropolitan Area Projects plan, the light rail system, as described in a report last year, would cost about $16 million. The city has set aside $3 million in local tax revenue and wants Congress to appropriate the rest.
One plan calls for 2.7 miles of track to be laid in downtown streets, with nine stops along the loop. However, Norick said that plan had been revised to include an extension of the track to the site of the Oklahoma City bombing.
In his letter, Istook said the project could not be considered mass transit since projections show only 640 to 757 passengers per day would use the trolleys.