TRANSPORTATION: Lawmakers to examine Obama’s ‘livability’ efforts
Josh Voorhees, E&E reporter
President Obama’s “livability” initiative will be under the microscope this week as two congressional panels hear from federal and state officials about transportation planning and land use.
The House Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee will meet Wednesday to take a closer look at the livability portion of the president’s fiscal 2011 budget request. On Thursday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will discuss how the federal Transportation Department partners with state and local transportation agencies in the decision-making process.
Obama is asking for more than $500 million for his effort to help state and local governments make more sustainable transportation investments. In addition to the funding request, Obama has also pledged to recast the nation’s overall transportation strategy to focus more heavily on such efforts and has created an interagency partnership between DOT, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and U.S. EPA to work on the issue. DOT took its first major livability action earlier this year when it rewrote selection criteria for transit projects to emphasize reduced carbon emissions and increased economic development.
A handful of key lawmakers who will play prominent roles in crafting the next highway bill have embraced the overall livability effort. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar’s (D-Minn.) bill would create an Office of Livability within DOT’s Federal Highway Administration to “establish a focal point within FHWA to advance environmentally sustainable modes of transportation, including transit, walking and bicycling.”
EPW Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) only recently began work on her version of the next major highway bill, but she has backed the overall livability effort and has said her bill will be based heavily on Oberstar’s.
Still, the livability effort has drawn its share of critics, mostly from conservatives who have expressed concern over federal involvement in state and regional land-use decisions. In a Newsweek column last May, conservative George Will called LaHood the “Secretary of Behavior Modification” and said the effort was an attack on Americans’ right to chose where they live and how they travel.
“[L]ong before climate change became another excuse for disparaging America’s ‘automobile culture,’ many liberal intellectuals were bothered by the automobile,” Will wrote. “It subverted their agenda of expanding government — meaning their supervision of other people’s lives.”
LaHood provided critics with further ammunition that month. Responding to a question about whether the livability effort was an attempt to “coerce” Americans out of their cars, LaHood said, “about everything we do around here is government intrusion in people’s lives.”
Lawmakers representing mostly rural districts or states have also expressed concern that the livability initiative — as well as other DOT efforts — focuses to much on urban areas. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) quizzed DOT officials about the program last week (E&E Daily, March 5).
John Porcari, DOT’s deputy secretary, attempted to calm Begich and Thune’s fears, telling them that rural areas stand to benefit just as much as large cities do from the administration’s plans.
“It’s clear that livability really applies to rural areas as much as it does anywhere else,” Porcari said, adding that one of the initiative’s goals was a return “to the quality of life that many of us enjoy in small towns.”