I had the chance to listen in yesterday to top staffers from USDOT explain their collaboration with HUD and the EPA -- the "Partnership for Livable Communities" that was first unveiled in March and touted again by President Obama in July. Three officials, including one of Ray LaHood's top deputies, Beth Osborne, outlined their plans via conference call to several hundred people from all parts of the country.
The details didn't go
very deep, but now we know that DOT has $100 million to spend on
planning grants next year to foster more sustainable development.
They've received 1,400 applications for so-called TIGER grants, a $1.5
billion pool of stimulus money set aside for "innovative"
transportation projects. (For a full recap that gives you a flavor for
the Obama DOT's priorities, read this blog post by Gary Toth of Project for Public Spaces, which organized the event.)
So the language is encouraging and there are some new pots of money being put to good use. We have quite recent evidence from the stimulus saga, however, that once federal highway funding goes out the door to state DOTs, sprawl projects will follow. So I want to focus on one key moment yesterday, when a participant asked how the feds plan to get state DOTs on board with a livability agenda. Here's how Osborne answered:
The DOTs are wide-varied. Some states are well ahead of the federal government, and some states are not sure that these are the priorities they want to set for themselves. The program we have now is not self-funding anymore. In addressing it at the federal level, there is an expectation within the administration that money that is spent from the federal government is going to have to be spent in a way that allows us to be accountable to our taxpayers. That’s going to realign the program to some extent. The more people learn about livability and sustainability priorities, they see it aligns with their priorities more than they realized (economic growth, development, housing affordability). When you show people the choice between the priorities we have laid out and what they have laid out, it's amazing the headway you can make. We have some training to do, we have some challenges to meet, but we feel confident we can meet them.
Deciphering an answer this cryptic is a bit like reading tea leaves.