From today’s Energy and Environment Daily (03/19/2009)
Josh Voorhees, E&E reporter
Creating “livable communities” by linking transportation planning with housing development is a top priority of the Obama administration, two of the president’s Cabinet members told lawmakers yesterday.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan told House appropriators of their plans to team up by creating an inter-agency task force to coordinate transportation and housing investments. The partnership, they said, would work to provide more transportation alternatives and also create more affordable housing that is near, or accessible to, employment opportunities.
The two men said the task force would build off the groundwork established last year by the two departments after the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Subcommittee directed DOT and HUD to identify incentives and other actions that would support transit-oriented development, such as mixed-income housing.
“Livability incorporates the concept of collaborative decisionmaking,” LaHood said. “By involving the public in the planning process and coordinating transportation activities with other activities related to healthy, sustainable communities, we can improve the quality of life for all Americans.”
The average U.S. household spends 34 percent of their annual budget on housing and 18 percent on transportation, according to Donovan, who said the two expenses are intrinsically linked. He said the true cost of housing is often underestimated because people often fail to factor in how much time and money they will spend commuting to their jobs and running errands.
“Over the last few years, many homeowners and renters have traded relatively high housing costs for high transportation costs in their search for affordable housing,” Donovan said.
He said the task force would develop federal housing affordability measures that include housing and transportation costs, along with other factors such as energy costs. “By giving consumers the power of information, the market can price that in,” Donovan said.
LaHood told lawmakers that the upcoming reauthorization of the national surface transportation law, which will provide the bulk of funding for the nation’s rails, transit and road work, provides an opportunity to recast the national transportation strategy to include housing and land-use concerns.
“The timing is such that we have a window of opportunity to think differently about livability and propose bold, new approaches to improve the livability of our nation’s communities as part of reauthorization,” he said.
In addition to the DOT-HUD task force, President Obama has also proposed the establishment of a “sustainable communities” initiative between the two agencies. Donovan said the administration was not prepared to provide the specific details of the effort, which is proposed in the president’s fiscal 2010 budget, but that it would administer funding to encourage urban regions to develop integrated housing, land-use and transportation plans.
“The goal of this initiative is not just to develop plans,” Donovan said. “It is to set a vision for growth that is tailored to discrete metropolitan markets and then apply federal housing, transportation and other investments in an integrated manner that supports that broader vision.”
The partnership between the two agencies drew praise from both Chairman John Olver (D-Mass.) and ranking member Tom Latham (R-Iowa), although Latham expressed skepticism over the applicability of “livable community” concepts to rural areas.
“What is livable to some might not be so livable to others,” he told the secretaries. Latham said that in rural and suburban areas where communities are much more spread out, mass transit is not the panacea for congestion and lack of road construction.
“A bus or a train may not be a viable option for a parent who needs to get to day care, to work and the grocery store all in one day,” he said.
Donovan attempted to assure Latham and other rural lawmakers that the sustainability measures are not a one-size-fits-all approach and could be tailored to improve both urban and rural living. “What we are talking about here is not a zero-sum game,” he said.