Dodd’s Livability Bill Earns Praise from Local Governments

With financial reform nearly complete, the Senate Banking Committee turned its attention today to one of Senator Chris Dodd's (D-CT) next priorities, the Livable Communities Act. Local government came out strong for the initiative to promote sustainable and integrated regional planning, with representatives of the nation's cities, towns, counties, and regional planning organizations testifying in favor. Among committee members, concerns persisted about whether the bill would disadvantage rural areas

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

The Livable Communities Act would provide about $4 billion in competitive grants to coordinate housing, transportation, and economic development policy with an eye toward promoting sustainable development. About $400 million would be slated for planning with the remainder funding implementation. The bill would also create a new office within the Department of Housing and Urban Development to guide and administer the programs. If passed, it would strengthen the Obama administration's multi-agency Sustainable Communities Initiative

At today's committee hearing representatives of the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties, the National Association of Development Organizations, and the National Association of Regional Councils each strongly endorsed the goals of the bill. 

Witnesses drew on professional experience -- from trying to revitalize barren neighborhoods in Indianapolis to managing the growth of a rural Maryland county -- to explain how federal policy could spur better development where they live. The Hartford region, for example, is investing in a new bus rapid transit line, said Lyle Wray, the executive director for the region's Council of Governments, but they haven't been able to tie the transit project to broader goals. "Linking that opportunity to affordable housing, jobs, and sustainability is what the Livable Communities Act would allow us to do," he said.

Describing the bill today, Dodd stressed that integrated transportation and land use planning can help address a host of challenges: high foreclosure rates, climate change and oil dependency, deteriorating infrastructure, traffic congestion, and the loss of farmland. Those problems, Dodd argued, aren't urban or rural. "One community can use the grants to develop brownfields in a post-industrial area," he said, and "another might create a livable town center or main street." 

Even so, Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), expressed doubt about whether his rural state would benefit under Dodd's legislation.

After acknowledging that sprawl is a problem, lamenting that in Montana housing has replaced some of the best farmland, Tester pressed the witness panel to explain how the Livable Communities Act would work for a town like his, with only 700 people. The two representatives of rural areas on the panel each suggested some sort of funding set-aside for rural communities, an idea which seemed to intrigue Tester.

Two other senators spoke who are not already sponsors of the bill. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) primarily discussed his own legislation specifically tailored to shrinking industrial cities, of which there are many in Ohio, but seemed supportive of Dodd's legislation. Mark Warner (D-VA) told the committee that he supports the goals of the Livable Communities Act, but would like to make sure that the bill is rigorously defined. "Is it just squishy livability?" he asked. "Is there a way that we can define this with metrics?" Witnesses assured him that results like the volume of reduced greenhouse gases, acres of preserved open space, and rises in property values can be measured.

No Republican Senators attended the meeting.