In the Works: Senate Bill to Promote Sustainable Development

In Washington politics, the term "kumbaya moment" is used to describe those rare occasions when self-interested stakeholders join hands to support a set of reforms. And today’s appearance before the Senate Banking Committee by the chiefs of three Cabinet departments — Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency — definitely qualified for kumbaya status.

dodd_working.jpgSenate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT). Photo: The Washington Note

The first bit of news that emerged from the Senate hearing was the EPA’s inclusion in the Sustainable Communities project that DOT and HUD announced in March. Yet a potentially bigger gesture of unity came from Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), the Banking panel’s chairman, who is planning legislation that would put some teeth behind the three agencies’ goals.

Dodd said his forthcoming bill would create a competitive grant program to "provide incentives for regions to plan future growth in a coordinated way that reduces congestion, generates good-paying jobs, meets our environmental and energy goals, protects rural areas and green space, revitalizes our Main Streets and urban centers, creates and preserves affordable housing, and makes our communities better places to live, work, and raise families."

That’s quite the mouthful. But it also suggests that even as Congress’ jam-packed schedule pushes the prospects for a federal transportation bill past the September 30 deadline, senior lawmakers are committed to helping the Obama administration make good on its promises to encourage transit-oriented development and environmentally friendly land use practices.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson even used a scientific metaphor to describe the agencies’ goals.

"Pedestrians are a good
indicator species for a healthy community," she told senators today. "We’re all about building a healthy community of pedestrians."

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan focused on data, outlining his plans for a housing "affordability index" that would track transportation costs, both monetary and environmental in addition to local home values.

"Right now the federal government is
in the way," he told Dodd. "We’re holding up local efforts to try to do this integrated planning. This isn’t
about forcing localities to do something they don’t want to do, this is about getting out of
their way."

That message that might have resonated with Republicans who have echoed George Will’s fearful criticism of federal "behavior modification" efforts — if any GOP senators had attended the Banking hearing.

The rosy and coordinated future outlined by the three agency chiefs suggested that the administration is sincere in its pledge to consider transportation as a public health and environmental issue, not just an issue of more money to move people and goods.

The next question, then, is whether Donovan, Jackson, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood can use their political capital to push Dodd’s bill from draft to law, while continuing to back common-sense changes that are possible now (reform for New Starts transit funding, e.g.).

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