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Just Four Lawmakers Show Up to Pitch Local Transportation Projects

2:35 PM EDT on May 20, 2009

olver.jpgRep. John Olver (D-MA) (Photo: Washington Post)

Members of the House had an open invitation today from the panel in charge of annual funding for transportation and housing: Any lawmaker could come and personally make the case for why their local bridge, road, or transit project should get a share of the federal money.

You might expect, given transit's historically difficult path to securing federal support, that urban-minded members of Congress would show up in droves. But you'd be wrong.

Just four lawmakers showed up to make their pitch to House appropriators: Henry Cuellar (D-TX), who represents several counties along the U.S.-Mexico border; John Boozman (R-AR), whose district includes most of eastern Arkansas; Betsy Markey (D-CO), who hails from the Fort Collins area; and Diane Watson (D-CA) of Los Angeles.

Rep. John Olver (D-MA), the chairman of the transportation and housing panel on the House Appropriations Committee -- also known as the controllers of the federal purse -- was unfazed by the low turnout, although his team expects to field thousands of requests for just a few open funding slots.

"There are many different ways you can make your case in this business," Olver said. He added that colleagues routinely approach him on the floor of the House (where the press is not permitted) to explain and re-prioritize their project requests.

Olver's panel runs on a separate track from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which authorizes projects on a six-year cycle while at least partly funding many of them. Appropriators such as Olver work with a portion of the total annual budget, which will total $3.55 trillion for the fiscal year that starts in October.

Public disclosure of earmarks is a central element of the Democrats' agenda this year. Still, government watchdog groups such as the Sunlight Foundation have had a devil of a time trying to create a centralized database of Congress' project requests that could bring local activists into the process.

Olver said the heightened focus on earmark transparency has resulted in an unexpected consequence: lawmakers who were once more selective are "assuming they must make requests for everything that someone in their district has come forward [to argue] for."

So will transit advocates face more receptive members of Congress, or will the outsized influence of the highway lobby swamp lawmakers' offices with road requests?

If today's quartet of requests is any guide, the outlook is mixed. Markey, of Colorado, asked for help with four local bridges and traffic control on one road, while Watson sought help repairing the sidewalk that houses the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Boozman focused on the I-49 road-building project in his state. Cuellar fared the best of the four, calling for studies of high-speed rail in the Houston and Laredo areas as well as a new bus terminal for Roma, Texas, that connects the town to Monterrey, Mexico.

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