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Federal Support for Smart Planning Is on the Line Today

A Senate panel will vote today on two budget bills for FY2012, one of which is for transportation and housing programs. The draft of the bill isn’t available until after the subcommittee markup today, but Smart Growth America is calling attention to the fact that it’s important to make sure the bill includes funding for the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, the partnership between USDOT, the EPA, and HUD.

Normal, Illinois' multimodal transportation center, funded with a TIGER grant from the Partnership. Image: Normal, Illinois

Through the partnership, the three agencies have coordinated transportation and land use policy to a greater extent than they did before, helping to curb sprawl and promote smart growth. This partnership has taken the federal agencies out of their “stovepipe” mentality and encouraged efficiency and collaboration at an unprecedented level. Why would lawmakers who want to reduce inefficiencies and waste in the federal government want to cut a program that has been so effective at doing just that?

Last fall, Mariia Zimmerman from HUD told Streetsblog that the Partnership has standardized guidelines to make it easier to apply for grants and eliminated some areas of inefficiency, overlap, and even direct contradiction among the agencies. But perhaps more importantly, she said the Partnership has transformed all of HUD, incorporating a focus on sustainability in all of the agency’s work.

A vote of support from the Senate would mean a lot to the Partnership, which saw its funding stripped in the House proposal for next year’s budget. But the Partnership isn’t the only potential casualty of the House plan: Highway and transit funding each get slashed by 34 percent, TIGER and TIGGER grants are cut entirely, high-speed rail gets nothing, the New Starts transit program gets slashed, and Amtrak is left gasping for air. If the Senate subcommittee doesn’t vote to save funding for these programs tomorrow, they have no chance.

See the Smart Growth America action alert for more information.

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Behind President Obama’s Call For More Infrastructure Projects

Tomorrow night, President Obama will unveil his jobs plan before a skeptical Congress. It’s unclear how much of the $300 billion proposal will go to infrastructure, but the president has said that will be a centerpiece of the proposal. An infrastructure bank and a new version of the expired Build America Bonds program could also be on the agenda.

How about this for your next transportation stimulus, Mr. President? Image: Austin Strategic Mobility Plan

Given the GOP strategy of obstructing any stated goal of the administration, it’ll be a tough sell. Some Republicans have already made it clear they would rather see a $640 billion, 12-month payroll tax holiday. That would increase the deficit by more than twice what Obama’s plan would, but deficits don’t seem to matter as long as taxes are getting cut.

So it’s no surprise that the president is also looking for ways that he can spur infrastructure job creation without Congress’s approval. Last week, Obama pleaded with Congress to pass a clean extension of the transportation bill (a plea which some Republicans are gleefully denying). At the same time, he announced that he was directing some agencies to each identify three infrastructure projects that could use a little federal help in speeding up the process. Here’s what he said:

In keeping with a recommendation from my Jobs Council, today I’m directing certain federal agencies to identify high-priority infrastructure projects that can put people back to work. And these projects — these are projects that are already funded, and with some focused attention, we could expedite the permitting decisions and reviews necessary to get construction underway more quickly while still protecting safety, public health, and the environment.

He specifically called on the departments of agriculture, commerce, housing and urban development, interior and transportation to highlight three projects each. We were wondering whether this process will end up falling into some of the same traps as the stimulus, which emphasized shovel-readiness to the detriment of other evaluation criteria for new projects, like whether the money would be well-spent.

Though Obama didn’t use the phrase “shovel-ready” last week, he called for projects that are already funded and have state and local permits, which implies nearly the same thing. Without a new stimulus, which the Republicans have already promised to oppose, there is no money to fund new projects, making it imperative to find those that are already funded. Still, the president admitted last year that “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects.”

And despite the administration’s general friendliness toward transit and understanding of the limitations of the private automobile, 60 percent of transportation dollars in the stimulus went to highways, with just 20 percent to transit. (Most of the rest went to freight rail, with a little bit for aviation and maritime projects.)

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California’s Climate Laws Undermined by Weak Transpo Policies, Investment

California's lack of good transportation policies and transit investment points to a failure in Sacramento. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/aquafornia/2731909303/##aquafornia##

California's lack of bold transportation policies and transit investment points to a failure in Sacramento. Photo: aquafornia

A new report from NRDC and Smart Growth America — which examines what all 50 states are doing to curb greenhouse gas emissions from transportation — lauds California as the most progressive state on policy, but points out that its transportation and spending priorities don’t match the bold blueprints, particularly as it relates to public transit.

It all points to Sacramento, where legislators have continuously raided the only dedicated fund for transit, leading to massive cuts statewide.

The report praises the state’s smart-growth law, SB375, as a model for other states, noting that “it puts in place a strong framework that can be used to drive better coordination between transportation and land use, and, of particular relevance to this analysis, to do so in a way that reduces GHGs.” It remains uncertain, however, “whether SB 375 will deliver results on the ground as opposed to just changes in planning documents.”

In September, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) adopted ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and 2035, a move that will compel the state’s metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to better integrate land use and transportation planning. The real test for SB375 will come at the local level as MPOs draft plans to meet the targets.

Unless the state prioritizes investments in sustainable transportation, California’s progressive policies will continue to be undermined.

“Huge cuts to public transit threaten these (policy) gains and could lead to even more devastating consequences for California communities and the economy,” said a joint press release from Smart Growth California, NRDC, TransForm and the Sierra Club of California. “In California, transportation policies and spending decisions are not in line with the state’s bold commitments to reduce the amounts of carbon dioxide and other emissions being pumped into the air.”

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CALPIRG, Smart Growth America Slam State Stimulus Spending

With the passage of the stimulus bill last spring, states had a 120 day deadline to obligate at least half of the transportation funding allocated to them. To mark that federal deadline, CALPIRG and Smart Growth America released a report today detailing how California is spending its stimulus money.

The news isn't good. 

Despite all the right rhetoric about weening the state off its car-dependency, California is actually spending more of its stimulus funds on highway projects, particularly highway widening, than the national average. The Golden State is spending more money adding highway capacity than 41 other states. Eleven other states, including the progressive transportation hotbeds of South Dakota and Alaska, didn't spend a dime on highway expansion. The following chart gives a bit more detail:

6_29_09_calpirg.jpgChart: California Public Interest Research Group

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Report: States Used $6.6B in Stimulus Cash on New Roads, Not Repair

Today is the deadline for state DOTs to allocate at least half of
the transportation money they received under the economic stimulus law,
and Smart Growth America marked the occasion with a study of what types of projects are getting that cash.

234824_0_0_1.jpgNorth
Carolina spent $5.7 million in stimulus cash repaving I-540, pictured
above, along with $4.4 million on bike-ped in the same county. (Photo: Triangle Biz Journal)

Distressingly
– but unsurprisingly — quite a lot is going to new roads rather than
repair of existing ones. Of the $26.6 billion sent to states under a
flexible transportation mandate, SGA found that $6.6 billion has gone
towards building new highway capacity.

Only $185 million of the flexible stimulus aid has been used on transit and non-motorized transportation, which was given about $8 billion in separate funding as well.

One
culprit behind this questionable use of taxpayer money, as SGA reports,
is a theme at risk of repeating itself during the upcoming debate over
broad transportation reform: the lack of accountability.

Most
states and localities reported the projects they selected for stimulus
aid only after the fact, allowing a privately run website to monitor
the process much faster than the Obama administration.

But inconsistent reporting is just the beginning of the problem, as SGA points out in its report:  

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