Norquist Op-Ed: Fund real main streets — not highways — with the "Jobs for Main Streets" bill

The rollout of Congress' latest stimulus bill has been all about "Jobs for Main Street." That's a great message, argues CNU President John Norquist in a timely op-ed in the Hartford Courant, except for one problem. When it comes to the jobs bill's largest expenditure — $27.5 million for highways and roads — Main Streets are largely missing. Writes Norquist:

The $27.5 billion isn't targeted to rebuild streets at the heart of older cities and towns, the cherished settings for Memorial Day parades and holiday light displays. No, the money will primarily go to projects that government knows best — the expansion of wide, motor-vehicle-only highways that go hand-in-hand with energy-wasting sprawl. This follows the earlier stimulus bill that favored massive highway projects, including a batch of expensive "highways to nowhere" that an examination by the Infrastructurist website concluded "make no sense."

The new bill does reserve $8.4 billion for transit and $800 million for Amtrak. But just when U.S. real estate markets are turning to Main Street and traditional neighborhood design, Congress throws $27.5 billion at the infrastructure — road widening — that supports sprawl.

Whether the setting is small towns like Guilford, older suburbs like West Hartford or bigger cities like New Haven, the traditional Main Street in Connecticut and other states is proving to be a model around which to build livable and energy-efficient communities. A report by economist Joseph Cortright for CEOs for Cities is the latest to find homes within walking distance of shops, schools and other amenities commanding significantly higher prices than sprawl counterparts.

And in the world of commercial real estate, the hot trend — named by Time Magazine as one of "ten ideas changing the world" — is "retrofitting suburbia" with walkable, mixed-use development. None other than Tyson's Corner, Va., the largest sprawl commercial complex in the country, is due for a multibillion-dollar urban makeover complete with traditional main streets.

The article goes on to extol the benefits of reinvesting in main streets and neighboring networks of walkable transit-served streets — benefits that include saving households hundreds of dollars monthly on transportation costs, promoting physical activity and reducing obesity, curbing greenhouse gases, and supporting more diverse economies. The research behind these conclusions is impressive and will be explored in greater depth at CNU 18 in Atlanta, "New Urbanism: Rx for Healthy Places" which is being oraganized in cooperation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Writes Norquist:

Evidence shows these networks save money — and they save lives. Research by engineering professors Norman Garrick of the University of Connecticut and Wes Marshall of the University of Colorado-Denver reveals that traffic injury and fatality rates are three times higher in California cities with sprawling streets than in those with compact, connected networks.

Brookings-backed research from the Center for Neighborhood Technology shows that highway-served sprawling areas in region after region have the highest household transportation costs and highest per-capita carbon emissions. Each months, residents of walkable, transit-served neighborhoods save hundreds of dollars in average transportation costs.

While it once seemed like a reach to expect the federal government to focus on creating value (and valued places) with the mega-billions it spends each year on road infrastructure, that's no longer the case. In the slightly abbreviated printed form, Norquist's article touches on this point. The longer version specifically mentioned the Department of Transportation's breakthrough TIGER grant program, a smart $1.5 billion piece of policy Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the Obama Administration inserted in the first stimulus act, which also included a far larger allotment for conventional highways. The grants are discretionary challenge funds that the USDOT awards to multimodal projects that are judged most likely to achieve positive economic, safety, environmental and livability outcomes — all a far cry from the auto congestion metrics that drive much DOT road funding. “When we put together the criteria by which we would evaluate projects, we put livability at the top,” the USDOT's Beth Osborne told New Urban News recently. She also shared a definition of livability used by Secretary LaHood that urbanists will cheer. “Livability means a community where you can take kids to school, go to work, see a doctor, go to the grocery store, have dinner and a movie, and play with your kids in a park, all without having to get into a car.”

Elena Schor at Streetsblog has closely tracked the development the "Jobs for Main Street" bill, including appeals from voices such as the Brookings Institution (and possibly even President Obama himself) to expand the role of TIGER in this new round of stimulus. The House ignored that good advice, the inside word being that it can't resist the political benefits that come with predictably distributing conventional highway dollars to state DOTs, even as projects funded by those dollars fail to achieve laudable results.

With the jobs bill now moving to the Senate, it's up to the members of that chamber to recognize that results matter and that real main streets belong in the Jobs for Main Street bill.

Image of Forth Worth, Texas by sidehike via Flickr.

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