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Smart Growth

Can State DOTs Be Trained to Kick the Sprawl Habit?

2:00 PM PDT on September 25, 2009

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:

TheDOTs are wide-varied. Some states are well ahead of the federalgovernment, and some states are not sure that these are the prioritiesthey want to set for themselves. The program we have now is notself-funding anymore. In addressing it at the federal level, there isan expectation within the administration that money that is spent fromthe federal government is going to have to be spent in a way thatallows us to be accountable to our taxpayers. That’s going to realignthe program to some extent. The more people learn about livability andsustainability priorities, they see it aligns with their prioritiesmore than they realized (economic growth, development, housingaffordability). When you show people the choice between the prioritieswe have laid out and what they have laid out, it's amazing the headwayyou can make. We have some training to do, we have some challenges tomeet, but we feel confident we can meet them.

Deciphering an answer this cryptic is a bit like reading tea leaves.

My
take is that the people at USDOT get the transportation-land use
connection, and they see the insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund as a
sort of opening. They seem to anticipate that some portion of federal
transportation spending will no longer come from the Highway Trust Fund
(which is "not self-funding anymore"), and they appear to believe they
can influence how that portion is spent ("to realign the program to
some extent"). To me this sounds like an indirect reference to a
national infrastructure bank, which would have the discretion to lend
money to projects that foster compact development.

Which
still leaves many billions in the hands of state DOTs, and the feds are
basically relying on the power of persuasion to rein in their bad
habits ("We have some training to do"). Re-training state
transportation planners is sorely need, no doubt about it, but will it
be enough to kick the sprawl habit?

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