The First Steps of Federalizing Land Planning Policy

By. Neil Williamson

The Obama Administration may be planning to use the allocation of federal housing and transportation dollars to alter the way Americans live and how they travel.  President Obama’s strong statement on “sprawl” during a Town Hall meeting in February (Ft. Myers FL) were followed by an interesting media release from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Departmentof Transportation:

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan and U.S. Departmentof Transportation (DOT) Secretary Ray LaHoodtoday announced a new partnership to help American families gain better access to affordable housing, more transportationoptions, and lower transportationcosts. The average working American family spends nearly 60 percent of its budget on housing and transportation costs, making these two areas the largest expenses for American families. Donovan and LaHood want to seek ways to cut these costs by focusing their efforts on creating affordable, sustainable communities.

The Secretaries discussed their plans for sustainable communities today at a U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing hearing titled, “Livable Communities, Transit Oriented Development, and incorporating Green Building Practices into Federal Housing and Transportation.”

The two agencies have set up “a high level interagency task force to better coordinate federal transportation and housing investments”.  Included in its many goals are the following:

• More choices for affordable housing near employment opportunities;
• More transportation options, to lower transportation costs, shorten travel times, and improve the environment;
• More ability to combine several errands into one trip through better coordination of transportation and land uses; and
• Safe, livable, healthy communities.

Our good friend Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D. wrote an interesting Heritage Foundation Backgrounder on this issue.  Entitled “President Obama’s New Plan to Decide Where Americans Live and Travel”.  In the piece, Utt outlined the current federal requirements regarding transportation and housing status reporting:

At present, HUD requires states, counties, and cities to conduct five-year Consolidated Plans esti­mating housing status and needs, and DOT requires the federally funded Metropolitan Planning Organi­zations (MPOs) to develop Long-Range Transporta­tionPlans and four-year Transportation Improve­mentPrograms. Despite billions of dollars of spending on these entities, all of this costly planning coincided with what many believe has been one of the worst housing and transportation environments in U.S. history. Over the past decade, housing became less affordable than ever, and this has con­tributed to the most severe housing recession since the Great Depression. While all of the MPOs were huffing and puffing away on their little transporta­tionplans, traffic congestioncontinued to worsen, and the quality of the transportationinfrastructure continued to decline, despite record federal and state transportation spending on both.

Nonetheless, having failed separately to come anywhere close to performing the straightforward tasks assigned to them, the White House proposes that these two forms of planning initiatives be combined in a cooperative partnership, and that they be given even more responsibility and greater control over living and travel policies for the American people.

The Free Enterprise Forum has long advocated for market based, rather than government, solutions.  We have also supported flexibility in applicationof “sustainable”  solutions.  We note with great trepidation the federal government, with so much already on its plate, weighing in on land use.  Each locality has different sensibilities regarding the creation of mixed use districts [witness the meeting in Belmont last night 4/28]. In addition, the “smart growth” communities with interwoven streets work better in the flatlands of upper Ohio than in the rolling hills of Central Virginia.

The concept of  locking up required federal funding for transportation and affordable housing until the locality’s comprehensive plan meets the approval of the White House is usurping power and should not be tolorated. 

Despite our many differences with local planning regarding land use planning, we believe such decisions should be made with the input from the citizens at the local level, without the significant threat of lost federal transportation or housing funding. 

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2 responses

  1. “While all of the MPOs were huffing and puffing away on their little transporta­tion plans, traffic congestion continued to worsen, and the quality of the transportation infrastructure continued to decline, despite record federal and state transportation spending on both.”

    “Little” transportation plans is right! MPOs get a minuscule amount of funding, and they have no policy teeth. Is he seriously trying to lay the blame for our failing highway infrastructure on MPOs?

    Take all annual MPO funds away and you might get a handful more lane widenings and maybe an interchange or two more in the whole country. Would that solve it all? We can all agree that our highway system is congested, dangerous, difficult to maintain, and financially bloated – and this is true universally, whether states have made any effort to implement “smart growth” policies or not (so SG isn’t to blame either).

    Maybe the problem is inherent to the system itself. Perhaps Dr. Utt has some suggestions for solutions to the problem he has identified. I think it would helpful for more economically-minded people to enter into the discussion over the next paradigm of our transportation infrastructure. Conservatives welcome!

    Two other problems with the article:

    1. “While both movements [SG and New Urbanism] encouraged the concentration of people in denser communities that relied less on the automobile for transportation, both were quickly corrupted by the anti-growth, not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) factions”

    The NIMBY phenomenon is almost always targeted against increasing urban density. The goal of most NIMBYs is to preserve suburban status quo by use of force of law. This is pretty much the opposite of New Urbanist and SG principles. I don’t see his connection here.

    2. He assumes that Americans want low-density living for a number of reasons, including “Americans could buy “more house” if they were willing to move beyond the unaffordable, close-to-the-city communities.”

    If housing is “unaffordable” for close-to-the-city communities it means that people want to live there. Right? That’s how I understand markets to work. It means that the demand outweighs the supply.

  2. “MPOs get a minuscule amount of funding, and they have no policy teeth” – Then how have they successfully blocked any attempt at building a Western Bypass? The Charlottesville/Albemarle MPO has been sticking it’s thumb in the eye of the rest of the state of Virginia over transportation needs on Route 29 for years – if you start with the idea that Albemarle County thinks of itself as an island and Charlottesville thinks of itself as a walled city you only begin to understand why we’re headed for gridlock….

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