Transportation Secretary Expects Bipartisan Support for Obama’s ‘Livable Communities’ Program

October 22, 2010 - 4:37 AM

Ray LaHood

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009, before a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing on combating distracted driving. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

Washington (CNSNews.com) – Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood believes the Obama administration’s “Partnership for Sustainable Livable Communities” will garner bipartisan support regardless of who wins the mid-term elections, adding that the program – in which the government promotes more public transportation and green policies in local communities – is the “most bipartisan” policy pushed by the administration.

“There’s no partisanship when it comes to what we’re doing, absolutely zero,” LaHood said. “It certainly is true if you go out around the country. First of all, mayors in these cities run in non-partisan elections. They don’t choose up sides. These are all non-partisan.”

The Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced on Thursday that they were awarding $68 million in grants – funding which was previously approved by Congress – for the “Sustainable Livable Communities” program.

According to the government, the program is “designed to create stronger, more sustainable communities by connecting housing to jobs, fostering local innovation and building a clean energy economy.”

LaHood spoke at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where he was joined by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan; Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency; and Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

From the $68 million, the DOT is awarding $28 million in Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants, while HUD is issuing $40 million in Sustainable Community Challenge Grants. Both grant programs are designed to integrate housing and transportation to concentrate development in urban areas and discourage development in rural areas.

“This is the most bipartisan effort the administration has taken in terms of the TIGER grant, the planning grants, what we’re doing with our friends from EPA,” LaHood said. “If what has taken place in the past with bipartisanship continues, I think there will be a very strong effort whoever gets elected to Congress. You know why? Because these are about the communities that these members of Congress come from.”

LaHood said this was a bottom-up effort and that the federal government was providing resources for state and local governments to complete projects they already wanted to do.

“I’ve laid out how this came about, from the White House, from the president on down, really picking people to serve in his cabinet that get it in terms of what needs to be done in America, in terms of bringing the full force of the federal government and federal agencies and federal resources, and this is a dream come true for lots of cities and lots of states,” LaHood said.

Barnes said there are six guiding “livability principles” for the administration’s sustainable communities program. The first is providing more public transportation. The second is to promote more affordable housing by expanding energy- efficient housing choices. The third is “enhancing economic competitiveness” by ensuring “workers have reliable and time access to employment centers, schools, services and basic needs.”

The fourth is supporting existing communities by targeting resources toward municipalities already focused on public transportation. The fifth is “coordinating and leveraging investments.” The final principle is to “enhance the unique characteristics of all communities by investing in healthy, safe and walkable neighborhoods; rural, urban or suburban.”

But the ambitious plans of the smart growth movement have rarely paid off, said Mark Scribner, land use and transportation policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank.

He cited the commuter rail system in Denver, Colo., where 150 miles of track were laid in the belief that most people would ride the train, but he said only about 20 to 25 percent of the people there use public transportation to get to work.

“For this to work, it requires such a sea change in behavior,” Scribner told CNSNews.com. “It could take decades for these planning patterns to start to make sense.”

LaHood has referred to Portland, Ore., as a model for the nation for planning and land use, but Scribner said, “Portland’s actions to limit development on the periphery have just caused the exurbs to grow dramatically.

“Sprawl hasn’t decreased,” Scribner said. “A lot of people are still living 50 miles away because the property [in Portland] is more expensive. This whole build-up, not build-out principle, all it does is drive up commercial prices.”

LaHood told The Oregonian newspaper on July 1, 2009 that the Obama administration’s transportation strategy is to “Take what you’ve done here in Portland and try to replicate it around America. It’s not that complicated.”

Oregon’s statewide Planning Goals & Guidelines says: “Urban growth boundaries shall be established and maintained by cities, counties and regional governments to provide for urban development needs and to identify and separate urban and urbanized land from rural land. Land within urban growth boundaries shall be considered available for urban development consistent with plans for the provisions of urban facilities and services.”

After the press conference, CNSNews.com asked LaHood, “Are you interested in seeing more urban growth boundaries, similar to what Portland, Ore. has?”

 “I don’t know. I’d need to think about it,” LaHood said.

The largest grant, $3 million, was a HUD grant to Washington, D.C.’s Department of Housing and Community Development. The second largest was a joint HUD-DOT grant of $2.9 million to the City of Denver.