Livable Communities Act Clears Senate Committee

The Senate Banking Committee voted 12-10 yesterday in favor of the Livable Communities Act, legislation that would bolster the Obama administration's initiatives to link together transportation, housing, economic development, and environmental policy.

donovan_lahood_jackson.jpgShaun Donovan, Ray LaHood, Lisa Jackson: Together forever? The Livable Communities Act would codify the partnership between HUD, US DOT, and the EPA. Photo: EPA
The administration has been taking steps since last March to coordinate between the Department of Transportation, HUD, and the EPA. This bill, carried in the Senate by Connecticut's Chris Dodd, would formalize those partnerships and authorize substantially more funding to work with. 

Most of the action would flow through HUD. This year the agency is funding $150 million in grants supporting regional efforts to improve access to transit and promote walkable development. The Livable Communities Act promises to scale up that program significantly, creating a new office within HUD, called the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, that will distribute about $4 billion through competitive grants.

The initial round of grants would fund comprehensive plans -- local initiatives to shape growth by coordinating housing, transportation, and economic development policies. Most of the funding -- $3.75 billion -- would be distributed over three years to implement projects identified in such plans.

While some Senators from rural states had expressed skepticism about the benefits of the bill for their constituents, yesterday's vote split strictly along party lines, with Democrats Jon Tester of Montana and Tim Johnson of South Dakota both voting in favor.

To make the case for the bill to his rural and Republican counterparts, Dodd singled out Envision Utah, a campaign that has built public support for smart growth policies in one of the country's reddest states. Not a single GOP Senator voted for the bill, however, even Utah's Bob Bennett, who told UPI, "I think the overall philosophy is wise, but I will be voting against it."

Some of the strongest backing for the bill has come from AARP, which sent a letter to committee members on Monday pointing out that the country's aging population will be poorly served if development patterns don't evolve to make driving less necessary. "Nine out of ten of our members tell us they want to stay in their own homes as they age -- most are living in suburban or rural areas and don't have access to public transportation," said Debra Alvarez, senior legislative representative for AARP. "There's a lot of things that can be done in small towns: co-locating things like post offices, grocery stores, pharmacies, and putting housing there too."

Advocates for transportation reform are now looking at the path forward for the bill. "We applaud the Committee for taking this major step forward on behalf of communities both small and large, and for American families looking for affordable homes in healthy neighborhoods with reliable transportation options," said Transportation for America director James Corless in a statement. "We urge the full Senate to follow their lead and give final passage."

Dodd has vowed to shepherd the Livable Communities Act through to become law before he retires in January. With Congress about to adjourn until September 13, he'll face a tight time frame. In addition to awaiting a vote in the full Senate, the bill has yet to clear a committee vote in the House, where Colorado representative Ed Perlmutter is the sponsor.