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Livable Communities Act Clears Senate Committee

The Senate Banking Committee voted 12-10 yesterday in favor of the Livable Communities Act, legislation that would bolster the Obama administration's initiatives to link together transportation, housing, economic development, and environmental policy.

donovan_lahood_jackson.jpgShaun
Donovan, Ray LaHood, Lisa Jackson: Together forever? The Livable
Communities Act would codify the partnership between HUD, US DOT, and
the EPA. Photo: EPA

The administration has been taking steps since last March to coordinate between the Department of Transportation, HUD, and the EPA. This bill, carried in the Senate by Connecticut's Chris Dodd, would formalize those partnerships and authorize substantially more funding to work with. 

Most of the action would flow through HUD. This year the agency is funding $150 million in grants
supporting regional efforts to improve access to transit and promote
walkable development. The Livable Communities Act promises to scale up
that program significantly, creating a new office within HUD, called the
Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, that will distribute
about $4 billion through competitive grants.

The initial round of grants would fund comprehensive plans -- local
initiatives to shape growth by coordinating housing, transportation,
and economic development policies. Most of the funding -- $3.75 billion
-- would be distributed over three years to implement projects
identified in such plans.

While some Senators from rural states had expressed skepticism
about the benefits of the bill for their constituents, yesterday's vote
split strictly along party lines, with Democrats Jon Tester of Montana
and Tim Johnson of South Dakota both voting in favor.

To make the case for the bill to his rural and Republican counterparts, Dodd singled out Envision Utah,
a campaign that has built public support for smart growth policies in
one of the country's reddest states. Not a single GOP Senator voted for
the bill, however, even Utah's Bob Bennett, who told UPI, "I think the overall philosophy is wise, but I will be voting against it."

Some of the strongest backing for the bill has come from AARP,
which sent a letter to committee members on Monday pointing out that the
country's aging population will be poorly served if development
patterns don't evolve to make driving less necessary. "Nine out of ten
of our members tell us they want to stay in their own
homes as they age -- most are living in suburban or rural areas and
don't have access to public transportation," said Debra Alvarez, senior
legislative representative for AARP. "There's a lot of things that can
be done in small towns: co-locating
things like post offices, grocery stores, pharmacies, and putting
housing there too."

Advocates for transportation reform are now looking at the path
forward for the bill. "We applaud the Committee for taking this major
step forward on behalf of communities both small and large, and for
American families looking for affordable homes in healthy neighborhoods
with reliable transportation options," said Transportation for America
director James Corless in a statement. "We urge the full Senate to
follow their lead and give final passage."

Dodd has vowed to shepherd the Livable Communities Act through to become law
before he retires in January. With Congress about to adjourn until
September 13, he'll face a tight time frame. In addition to awaiting a
vote in the full Senate, the bill has yet to clear a committee vote in the House, where Colorado representative Ed Perlmutter is the sponsor.

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