Can State DOTs Be Trained to Kick the Sprawl Habit?

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.)

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.

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?

  • Moser

    I think you are wrong about the infrastructure bank, which may not end up within USDOT altogether, and whose resources are likely to be oriented toward mega-projects. I think a more likely interpretation is that if the feds have to go through the pain of raising new revenue for transportation, there is going to be a greater degree of accountability attached, and the Tiger grants will show which direction things are headed. I also think the topic here is a bit miscast. State DOT’s don’t directly create sprawl. They facilitate it by seeing their job as chasing around after the traffic congestion that sprawl generates. Disowning the congestion caused by bad municipal development decisions is the first step toward state transportation reform.

  • MichelleM

    I participated in this webcast, and I was genuinely disappointed. I mean, yes, they said all the right things about walkability and transit and context sensitive design and the environment and quality of life…but most of the participants were people who have been preaching this stuff for the past 10 years or longer. When the discussion turned to programs and next steps, the presenters really didn’t have anything new to talk about. The idea of the planning grants is good, but there weren’t many specifics. We’ve known about TIGER for, what, a year now? I’m glad that we have people in charge who ‘get it’, but I really hope they’ll get more assertive about developing programs.

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