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Pro-Bike Republican Tom Petri to Chair Key House Transpo Panel

The Republican co-chair of the Congressional Bicycling Caucus is getting a leadership position with some real gravitas. Rep. Tom Petri (R-WI) was just named the new chair of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee in the House -- the epicenter of the chamber's surface transportation legislation.

The list of Republicans who support active transportation is pretty short these days, and Petri is at the top of it. He's a frequent speaker at the National Bike Summit and similar gatherings. I first encountered him at a workshop of Dutch cycling experts who were advising DC and other U.S. cities on how to improve their infrastructure. At that meeting, Petri declared “a bipartisan war against couch potatoes here in the United States."

Last month, I wrote about Republicans who might reach across the aisle to co-sponsor legislation that benefits transit and safer streets, and everyone I spoke to mentioned Petri's name -- but some were cynical. Sure, Petri's great, the thinking went, but he's ignored by his party. You can get his name on a good bill but it won't carry much weight with the GOP.

That could change now that he's subcommittee chair.

Petri was one of the very few Republicans trying to stem the tide of attacks against Transportation Enhancements, the program that used to fund bicycling and walking. (It's now been repackaged as Transportation Alternatives, with less money.) Petri fought to keep Enhancements, introducing an amendment [PDF] to protect the program, as many in his party tried to do away with it altogether. As I mentioned in last month's story:

The amendment failed and Petri ended up being the only Republican to vote against H.R. 7 in committee (which was as far as it got), though he says he voted against it “primarily because it slashed highway funding for Wisconsin.” Petri also ensured that metro areas with small transit systems would continue to have the flexibility to allocate federal transit funds to operating costs.

On the other hand, Petri hasn’t taken a strong stance against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s decision to send high-speed rail funds back to the federal government and, in fact, co-sponsored legislation that would have directed those returned funds toward deficit reduction, not other rail projects.

Petri takes over from Rep. John Duncan (R-TN), who maintained a low profile during the debates over H.R. 7. But when Chair John Mica was prepared to cut transportation funding by a third to keep it in line with thinning revenues, Duncan was on board with that. He insisted that no new revenue streams be considered.

Duncan doesn't deviate from the party line that the federal government has no role in bike/ped funding, either.

During the debate over the bill, Duncan most often expressed his support for the move to gut environmental review procedures, saying, "I know all these environmental radicals come from very wealthy and very upper-income families, but they are really hurting the poor and low-income groups in this country."

Duncan is now the vice-chair of the full Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Petri is one of the highest-ranking members on the T&I Committee, but the chairmanship wasn't a given. The vice-chairmanship of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee went to freshman Richard Hanna (R-NY) in the last session, skipping over many more senior members, Petri among them.

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