The best news you didn't hear about yesterday

A House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing featuring two low-profile cabinet members won’t make a splash even on a slow-news day, and certainly not when a juicy story like the AIG outrage has so many angles to explore.

But take my word for it: big news came out of yesterday’s Congressional testimony by Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan and Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Ray LaHood. The cabinet secretaries announced

a new partnership to help American families gain better access to affordable housing, more transportation options, and lower transportation costs. The average working American family spends nearly 60 percent of its budget on housing and transportation costs, making these two areas the largest expenses for American families. Donovan and LaHood want to seek ways to cut these costs by focusing their efforts on creating affordable, sustainable communities.

I explain why this is important and welcome news after the jump.

“Sustainability” means many things to many people, but a news release available at the HUD and DOT sites explains what the joint task force will be working on:

“One of my highest priorities is to help promote more livable communities through sustainable surface transportation programs,” said Secretary LaHood.

“This partnership will help expand every American family’s choices for affordable housing and transportation,” said Secretary Donovan. “HUD’s central mission – ensuring that every American has access to decent, affordable housing – can be achieved only in context of the housing, transportation, and energy costs and choices that American families experience each day.”

DOT and HUD have created a high-level interagency task force to better coordinate federal transportation and housing investments and identify strategies to give American families:

• More choices for affordable housing near employment opportunities;

• More transportation options, to lower transportation costs, shorten travel times, and improve the environment;

• Mhe ability to combine several errands into one trip through better coordination of transportation and land uses; and

• Safe, livable, healthy communities.

The release then highlights some specific priorities for the task force, such as:

Enhance integrated regional housing, transportation, and land use planning and investment. The task force will set a goal to have every major metropolitan area in the country conduct integrated housing, transportation, and land use planning and investment in the next four years. […] DOT will encourage MPOs to conduct this integrated planning as a part of their next long range transportation plan update and will provide technical assistance on scenario planning, a tool for assessing future growth alternatives that better coordinate land use and transportation planning.

Allow me to translate: Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) are charged with long-range transportation planning. Too often, this planning consists of throwing together all the new roads and interchanges on every suburb’s wish list, with no regard for land use considerations (like preserving farmland and natural areas, keeping neighborhoods compact, or promoting “mixed-use” developments where cars are not the only transportation option for residents).

LaHood is saying that the federal DOT, which periodically reviews and certifies the work of the MPOs, will prod them to integrate land use and transportation planning.

Further down the press release, we read:

• Redefine affordability and make it transparent. The task force will develop Federal housing affordability measures that include housing, and transportation costs and other costs that affect location choices. Although transportation costs now approach or exceed housing costs for many working families, Federal definitions of housing affordability don’t recognize the strain of soaring transportation costs on homeowners and renters who live in areas isolated from work opportunities and transportation choices.

• The task force will redefine affordability to reflect those interdependent costs. The task force will also continue to ensure that the costs of living in certain geographic areas are transparent- using an online tool that calculates the combined housing and transportation costs families face when choosing a new home.

Here is one online tool developed by the Brookings Institution’s Urban Markets Initiative in order to factor in transportation costs when measuring “the true affordability of housing.” I can’t say whether DOT and HUD plan to use this specific tool, but you get the general idea. In the past, the federal government failed to acknowledge the high hidden costs of sprawling suburban developments. Donovan and LaHood will start to change that.

The DOT and HUD press release also promises to

• Develop livability measures. The task force will research, evaluate and recommend measures that indicate the livability of communities, neighborhoods and metropolitan areas. These measures could be adopted in subsequent integrated planning efforts to benchmark existing conditions and identify progress toward achieving community visions. The task force will develop incentives to encourage communities to implement, use and publicize the measures.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a public meeting in Des Moines featuring federal transportation officials. They mentioned that in LaHood’s first address to DOT employees, he said his top two priorities would be safety and “livable communities,” prompting audible gasps in the room. Creating “livable communities” is a key goal of the “smart growth” movement and is quite different from the traditional DOT focus on funding new road construction.

LaHood’s joint announcement with Donovan yesterday indicates that he is serious about changing the focus of federal transportation planning. I sincerely hope Congress will follow his lead when the highway bill comes up for reauthorization later this year.

One mark of a “livable community” is mixed-use development, which has both economic and environmental advantages over sprawling development in car-dependent neighborhoods. Here is a good summary of the economic benefits, which include “walkable design leading to higher property values, increased private investment, [and] tourism”. Click here for a detailed report on why reducing car-dependent development is an essential part of a strategy to combat global warming. The main point:

Meeting the growing demand for conveniently located homes in walkable neighborhoods could significantly reduce the growth in the number of miles Americans drive, shrinking the nation’s carbon footprint while giving people more housing choices, according to a team of leading urban planning researchers.

In a comprehensive review of dozens of studies, published by the Urban Land Institute, the researchers conclude that urban development is both a key contributor to climate change and an essential factor in combating it.

They warn that if sprawling development continues to fuel growth in driving, the projected 48 percent increase in the total miles driven between 2005 and 2030 will overwhelm expected gains from vehicle efficiency and low-carbon fuels. Even if the most stringent fuel-efficiency proposals under consideration are enacted, notes co-author Steve Winkelman, “vehicle emissions still would be 34 percent above 1990 levels in 2030 – entirely off-track from reductions of 60-80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 required for climate protection.”

I hadn’t heard of Donovan before President Barack Obama picked him to run HUD. Even though I follow transportation policy closely, I didn’t know what to think about LaHood’s appointment when it was first announced. Time will tell whether the joint HUD and DOT task force accomplishes the goals set for it. But judging from the vision Donovan and LaHood laid out yesterday, they may turn out to be among Obama’s best appointments.

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