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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.
"By comparison, I know of no other federally funded light rail system with under 14,000 passengers per day," Istook wrote.
He said also that the projected costs keep rising and that city officials were estimating the trolley would operate at an annual deficit of more than $300,000.
In an interview, Istook said the city would be better served by rubber-wheeled trolleys that are used on campus at the University of Oklahoma and in many other cities for tours.
"They're an attractive way of moving people around rather than laying track in the middle of downtown Oklahoma City," Istook said.
Norick said studies done for the city showed that potential developers were more inclined to invest in businesses around permanent tracks.
"If you have rails in the ground, that tells people you're going to be there," he said, adding that the routes of the rubber-wheeled trolleys could be changed at any time.
Norick said Istook's figures on projected ridership were too low.
He added that the annual operating deficit would be offset somewhat by an anticipated increase in parking at city-operated lots.
Istook's position against federal funding for a project in his own area - downtown Oklahoma City is not in his congressional district but other parts of the city are - would seem strange behavior for many lawmakers.
However, since coming to Congress in 1993 and landing a seat on the Appropriations Committee, Istook has tried to resist anything that smacked of hometown pork.
In his letter to Wolf, Istook wrote, "I cannot in good conscience speak out and oppose waste on projects in other states and cities if I ignore it in Oklahoma. Following a double standard preserves the system which has created our deficit and huge national debt."
Istook found himself at odds with other members of the Oklahoma delegation and Oklahoma City officials last year over federal disaster aid in the wake of the bombing.
Istook fought to get the funding limited to certain parts of downtown, fearing that city officials were planning to use the money for MAPS.Archive ID: 660818