NEW YORK The Obama administration risks "squandering" transportation investments included its economic stimulus plan because it failed to change a decades-long system favoring highways over mass transit, said the head of a group that advocates more transportation choices.
"The federal transportation funding system is broken, it's just broken," Robin Holzer, chairwoman of the Citizens' Transportation Coalition, told at the Reuters Infrastructure Summit.
An opportunity to level the playing field was lost with the stimulus program, she said on Wednesday.
"The short time frame was really a structural obstacle," she said. The Houston-based group instead was advised to concentrate on pushing for more dollars for mass transit when the federal transportation bill is renewed this year.
Under the current system that U.S. President Barack Obama has maintained, at least for now, the U.S. government will pay as much as 80 percent of the multibillion dollar cost of a proposed 180-mile ring road around Houston -- its fourth such loop -- even though it serves a thinly populated rural area.
In contrast, an expansion of the city's light-rail system is only eligible for getting 50 percent of the cost paid by the federal government, she said.
Yet more than 147,000 people live within a half-mile of the ten stations on the light rail system, Holzer said.
To demonstrate the low demand for the new ring road, Holzer displayed a picture of its empty lanes that she said she took at 5 p.m. one weekday -- a typical rush hour in urban areas.
"It's a boondoggle highway in the middle of nowhere," she said. "We need to invest our money where the people are."
The environmentalist group Sierra Club has sued to block the road, called the Grand Parkway, which runs through birding areas.
Holzer also urged that the multistep process of approving mass transit projects be streamlined. Houston's light-rail system was subject to voter approval as well as strict cost-benefit analysis and environmental provisions. Highways do not require voter approval, are not subject to such cost-benefit provisions and qualify for much more federal cash.
The United States needs to invest in other ways for people to get around, including adding bike lanes and sidewalks, which some cities and towns now constrain or do not allow, she said.
In Houston, for example, "We can't even build sidewalks to schools," she said.
"We would love to see equal footing between different transportation modes" she said. "Even people who are commuting by car want options."
Property values within the area served by Houston's light rail system are firming, while those located outside this boundary are declining, she said.
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