Even as the Obama administration ramps up its work on a sustainability initiative that treats transportation, housing, and energy efficiency as interconnected aspects of development policy, the effort remains without an official congressional authorization -- a situation that Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) vowed to fix yesterday.
During an appearance in his home state with Ron Sims, chief of the administration's inter-agency Office of Livable Communities, Dodd vowed to work for passage of his legislation authorizing $4 billion in grants for Sims' work.
"I only have about eight to 10 months," he said, according to the Hartford Courant. "My goal is to see the Livable Communities Act become law before I retire."
Dodd, whose panel has jurisdiction over housing and urban development, is working with that 10-month deadline as he anticipates retiring from Congress at year's end. His push to create a long-term foundation for the administration's sustainability effort also could run into resistance from rural lawmakers whose states have tended to benefit from a transportation spending system based on road-mile formulas.
The first stirrings of rural skepticism came on Thursday, when Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) questioned the administration's move to emphasize "multi-modal" transport projects that would combine roads, transit, and bike-ped access.
Begich asked the U.S. DOT's No. 2, John Porcari, to make sure that rural states are "not lost in the mix." That sentiment was echoed later in the day by Sen. John Thune (R-SD).
"It seems to me that [the Office of Livable Communities] is a program that's going to overwhelmingly focus on urban areas," Thune told Porcari during the latter's appearance before the Senate Commerce Committee, asking if rural states such as his own would "get some assurance or guarantee of funding."
Porcari assured the senators that the administration plans to include rural areas in its sustainability plans, describing the program as an opportunity to restore the "quality of life" once associated with small-town America. Nonetheless, the concerns raised by Begich and Thune could signal more requests for livable communities grants to be distributed among all states, as opposed to the more competitive process the administration has outlined for its first $150 million of funding.
The most significant test of Dodd's ability to marshal support for his bill authorizing the livable communities office may come later this spring, as lawmakers consider the administration's request for about $530 million in 2011 funding for the effort. Congress assented to the White House budget request for $150 million in sustainability grants for 2010.