Obama and Congress start putting the pieces together

Top-level hiring and legislative proposals are moving Washington toward a more urban outlook.

The appointment of Shelley Poticha, former executive director of the Congress for New Urbanism, to a key job at the US Department of Housing & Urban Development is the latest sign that the federal government is shifting significantly toward a new urbanist point of view.

Poticha, president since 2004 of the advocacy group Reconnecting America, will start Sept. 8 as HUD’s senior adviser for sustainable housing and communities. She will be joining a department that’s been reenergized by President Obama’s naming of two well-regarded urban leaders — Shaun Donovan ofNew York City and Ron Sims of King County, Washington — the No. 1 and 2 positions at HUD.

Poticha’s title of senior adviser may soon be upgraded. Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut) has introduced legislation to establish a new Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities within HUD. Poticha would be its director, charged with achieving closer coordination among three important federal entities: HUD, the Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“It’s a big step,” Robert Puentes, a metropolitan and urban affairs analyst at Brookings Institution, said of the Obama administration’s attempt to shatter the insularity of federal agencies that deal with housing, urban development, and transportation. “Everybody outside of Washington knows those things are connected,” he observed, but federal programs have mostly stayed within the “silos” of separate departments. By reaching across agency boundaries, he suggested, the government should be in a position to foster a more integrated approach, one that will help regions develop in a more logical and coordinated way.

Funds for TOD
Dodd’s proposed Livable Communities Act would also authorize $3.75 billion for competitive grants to help communities create and preserve affordable housing; support transit-oriented development (TOD); improve public transportation; create pedestrian and bicycle thoroughfares; redevelop brownfields; and foster economic development. Those activities are broadly consistent with New Urbanism and smart growth.

Communities receiving the grants would have to demonstrate a commitment to integrated planning and to sustainable development, according to an analysis provided by Reconnecting America. Puentes described Dodd’s bill as “transformative,” and said it is part of a move toward “merit-based decision-making,” as opposed to porkbarrel spending that elected officials lobby for but that make little sense from a regional or national perspective.

A similarly merit-based process is expected to be used by the Transportation Department to award $1.5 billion of TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) Discretionary Grants next January. Those funds can be used for surface transportation projects such as Interstate highway rehabilitation, bridge replacement, public transportation, and passenger and freight rail undertakings. The grants are to be awarded to state and local governments or transit agencies for projects that will have “a significant impact on the nation, a metropolitan area, or a region,” according to a DOT statement.

“The whole conversation about transit investment has fundamentally changed,” Puentes said. It’s becoming understood, he said, that transportation money should be allocated less on the basis of “moving people from point A to point B” and relieving congestion and more on the basis of “making these places where people can live, work, and play.” As the evaluation standard for mass transit projects evolves, he expects to see transit stations surrounded more often by mixed-use development and less often by parking lots.

David Goldberg, spokesman for Smart Growth America, pointed out that the Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009, which is being pushed by James Oberstar (D-Minnesota), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, would make a larger proportion of future transportation funds available to mass transit. Twenty-two percent of the funds over the next six years would be dedicated to transit, Goldberg said.

Of federal money allocated to highways, about 60 percent has until now been used to build new capacity, Goldberg said. If Oberstar has his way, the proportion might be flipped, with 60 percent going to repair and reconstruction projects and 40 percent going to new or expanded roads.

Goldberg also noted that “a larger share of [federal transportation funds] would be assigned to metropolitan areas to allocate.” Less of the funds would be allocated by state transportation departments, which have often built new highways in outlying areas and been less receptive to urban desires. Of the changes now being contemplated, he said, “A lot of this accrues to the benefit of urbanism.”

William Lind, head of the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank that is pro-transit, noted during CNU’s annual conference in Denver that one of Oberstar’s biggest priorities is to reduce the time it takes for proposed transit projects, particularly rail projects, to wend their way through the federal bureaucracy. It now takes an average of 14 years for a rail transit proposal to go from application to construction, whereas highway funding proposals speed through in only 18 months, according to Lind. If the rail project approval process is streamlined, “they could get it down to 30 months,” Lind said, reporting on a discussion he had with the Congressman.

A major question is whether the six-year authorization that Oberstar is shepherding can be passed before the current act, known as SAFETEA-LU, expires September 30. The Obama administration and some in Congress have said it’s not possible to pass Oberstar’s bill by the end of this month. Instead, the existing law may be extended — perhaps for three months, perhaps for as long as a year and a half.
Transportation for America (T4America), a coalition of more than 300 organizations, has been campaigning for well over a year to bring transportation programs in line with smart-growth objectives. Goals of T4America include cutting per capita vehicle miles traveled by 16 percent by 2030, tripling the extent of walking, bicycling, and transit use, and reducing transportation-generated carbon dioxide emissions.

Where the money will come from to support transportation spending is the biggest question of all. Oberstar’s bill would spend $450 billion over six years, a 38 percent increase over current funding. On top of that, it would provide $50 billion for high-speed rail. Yet with gasoline tax revenues down, the Highway Trust Fund is losing its ability to maintain current levels of spending, let alone support a substantial increase.

Whatever its source, a shift in how federal money is spent would clearly please most urbanists. “The current system favors spending money to relieve congestion,” CNU President John Norquist has argued. “It has the undesirable effect of directing federal dollars to places that were laid out in inefficient ways, concentrating much of their traffic on a small number of large roads rather than providing extensively interconnected street and road networks.”

Rick Hall, a transportation planner in Tallahassee, has proposed an idea he thinks would overcome some of the defects identified by Norquist. Hall suggests that the government instruct metropolitan planning organizations to identify existing or future “compact urban areas.” Those areas could then be given priority for funding.

Hall says that compact areas tend to have standards for lane widths, speeds, and other elements different from those in outlying non-compact areas. Networks with those elements distribute traffic well; they bolster walkable, mixed-use communities. It makes sense, he asserts, to direct transportation funding to favor those kinds networks rather than to perpetuate systems that generate more travel and traffic.

That idea may currently strike Washington insiders as beyond the pale. But as the appointment of a TOD advocate to a key position at HUD attests, ideas and personnel in the nation’s capital are changing.

Secretary Donovan said of Poticha: “Shelley will help lead HUD’s effort to change the way we think about how our communities fit with how Americans live their lives.”