Senate Bill Marks Next Step in Federal ‘Sustainable Communities’ Plan

By Matt Cover | August 5, 2010 | 3:25 PM EDT

President Barack Obama delivers remarks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, July 27, 2010. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

( – A federal neighborhood planning program to provide grants for environmentally sound, sustainable living communities moved one step closer to being funded Tuesday, when the Senate Banking Committee passed the Livable Communities Act on a 12-10 party line vote.
The act would provide money for part of President Barack Obama’s “Partnership for Sustainable Communities,” which seeks to develop a national urban policy agenda to be carried out jointly by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the Department of Transportation (DOT).
The act would create grant programs at HUD that seek to foster so-called sustainable communities, very high-density residential and commercial districts connected by public transportation.
The administration has already allocated billions of dollars since June 2009, when the interagency partnership was announced, to various grant programs designed to push local governments to make planning decisions that fall in line with Obama’s neighborhood planning goals.
Particularly, the administration has linked funds from the Federal Highway Trust Fund for the purpose of encouraging its favored style of land-use planning. The administration planned to transfer $307 million from the fund--normally used to aid states with highway construction--and earmark it for so-called livable communities grants.
The goals of Obama’s community planning initiative were articulated by Obama himself in a January 2010 speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
“It's time to throw out old policies that encouraged sprawl and congestion, pollu­tion, and ended up isolating our communi­ties in the process,” Obama said. “We need strategies that encourage smart development linked to quality public transportation, that bring our communities together.”
The EPA, DOT, and HUD representatives from each agency’s sustainable planning office were even more candid in a July 9 blog post on
“A part of President Obama's broader urban and metropolitan agenda, the partnership, guided by six livability principles, aims to break down traditional silos and craft federal programs and policies that take a more collaborative and holistic approach to better respond to the needs of communities,” the federal planners wrote.
“In the past, federal policy inadvertently promoted uncoordinated, dispersed growth that left too many communities disconnected from regional assets and without the proper tools to realize their full potential,” they wrote.
“Today, many Americans are car-dependent, living far from their workplaces in residential subdivisions that don’t have quality public transportation and traditional amenities like corner markets, schools, parks, and medical facilities,” they added.
The federal neighborhood planning initiative is designed to coax localities into restricting where people can live, work, and shop into small areas connected by public transportation.
“To build and support these sustainable communities, housing, transportation, environmental protection, economic development, and energy policies need to be developed in concert,” the three government planners wrote.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)

The proposal has come under fire from House Budget Committee Ranking Member Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who awarded the DOT program his “Budget Boondoggle Award” in June 2010.
“Local land use and zoning has always been the responsibility of local and State governments--to coordinate transportation and zoning projects, maximizing economic growth and serving community needs,” said Ryan. “But the administration’s ‘livable communities’ initiative ignores this jurisdictional boundary by leveraging grant money to gain heavy influence over local planning decisions.”
“Cities and local communities clearly face major challenges with growth, congestion, and a broad range of other quality-of-life concerns,” said Ryan. “The ‘Office of Livable Communities’ reflects Washington’s lack of trust in localities’ ability to solve their own problems; and instead it imposes an urban-utopian fantasy through an unprecedented intrusion of the Federal Government into the shaping of local communities.”