Sunday, January 17, 2010

TRANSPORTATION: Officials warn Obama's 'smart growth' initiatives may be hard to sell

(Monday, January 11, 2010)
Saqib Rahim, E&E reporter

Administration officials gave an update yesterday on the president's "livability" initiative, saying it has been difficult to recast the vision of U.S. communities, with so many laws geared toward another vision: the auto-driven society.

Speakers at a conference of transportation researchers said the three main agencies in charge -- the Department of Transportation, U.S. EPA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development -- have already begun to craft plans.

But they said the Obama administration's "livability" vision, which has taken flak for being too vague, also faces hurdles because many federal laws discourage, or even make illegal, transportation plans for walking, transit and dense neighborhoods.

Beth Osborne, DOT's deputy assistant secretary for transportation policy, said federal laws often work at cross-purposes, so planners have a hard time drawing a blueprint that includes different kinds of infrastructure.

"A lot of it [is] the disjointed federal programs that often discourage and certainly do not incentivize the coordination of housing policy and transportation policy, water infrastructure policy, economic development policy," she said.

"In fact, within the transportation program, we really disincentivize this," she said. A state that improves traffic flow and transit use will burn less gasoline, meaning it will lose revenue from its main source of transport funding -- the gas tax. "That state that creates greater efficiency can see their own budget get slashed as a reward."

The administration introduced the livability initiative last March, proposing that the three government agencies, working together, could improve coordination in a transport system that had developed in an ad hoc way, making cars and sprawling suburbs facts of daily life.
Scant public support for congestion pricing

The initiative was built on a "smart growth" vision that assumes Americans are often forced to drive because they don't have other options, such as quick transit service, walkways to grocery stores, or even carpool lanes.

The speakers said they are tailoring their new programs, many of which are funded through last year's economic stimulus bill, to help localities break through zoning laws that prevent smart growth. Osborne said Capitol Hill has asked DOT to craft its own version of a transportation reauthorization bill, the half-decade-long plan that would not tell states how to grow, but would offer funding to guide growth.

Officials on the panel said this large-scale shift is a difficult pitch to make, especially in the economic slump.

There's another reason, as well, according to other experts on the panel: Many transportation policies are being sold poorly to the American public, which doesn't understand the wonky talk of researchers and remains unexcited about plans that make driving more expensive.

One proposal, known as "congestion pricing," would charge motorists to drive on the most stagnant roads. The revenue could be used on an urban highway or other ways to unsnarl the knottiest zones of a city's downtown.

New York City is one of two governments that are using the charge, but as Bruce Schaller, the city's deputy commissioner for planning and sustainability, pointed out, it's a tough sell to drivers that see they will pay more, but don't know what they get for it.

Unless leaders can make that connection -- that the congestion charge should reduce traffic, reducing commute times, with the money possibly going to other infrastructure -- the policy just won't get popular support, Schaller said.

"The key issue is ... what the benefit is for drivers," he said. "We need to have a conversation with the public ... not in ways that [researchers] frame the discussion, but in ways that people can relate to."

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