Domestic Policy Watch — September 2010

Planning Fares Well in Washington

Come to Washington later this month (September 26-28)!

By W. Paul Farmer, FAICP
Chief Executive Officer
American Planning Association

Change in Washington doesn't come easy. Many people hoped and believed that by the time the 111th Congress adjourned, major transportation, energy, and climate change legislation would have been enacted. Yet, with just a few weeks remaining before midterm elections, the fate of those initiatives remains very much in doubt. Although feelings of frustration are understandable, planning has actually fared remarkably well in Washington over the past year and a half.

In fact, Congress and the Obama administration have made support for planning a cornerstone of many new domestic policy initiatives. At a time when virtually every state and community faces daunting fiscal challenges, Washington has taken a long-term approach to economic recovery that includes an array of new resources to support innovative planning as a key to long term prosperity. From new grants to overhauls of existing programs, the federal government has demonstrated a focus on planning that has long been absent.

Administrators and legislators show support

Some of the new federal efforts to encourage good planning have been administrative. The most notable example is the interagency partnership on sustainable communities launched by HUD, DOT, EPA, and the new White House Office on Urban Affairs. A number of transit programs were restructured to better incorporate livability objectives. Several key stimulus programs, such as the energy efficiency and conservation block grants, included planning requirements. HUD and DOT are experimenting with ways to allow communities to better blend CDBG and transportation formula funds for community development projects, and both HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood have extolled the benefits of more integrated planning.

As welcome as all those changes are, better city and regional planning demands new resources. Fortunately, Congress stepped up in the FY 2010 appropriations process to fund several administration proposals to support planning.

Planners around the country spent considerable time this summer preparing proposals for new federal planning funds. Just weeks ago HUD, DOT, and EPA closed the application period for $100 million in new regional sustainability planning grants, $40 million in new community challenge grants, and $35 million in planning grants associated with multimodal TIGER 2 projects. Each of these new grant programs asks communities to focus on six core livability principles. They also promote better coordinated and better integrated planning.

All three agencies deserve credit for extensive outreach to planners in the development of the new programs. For the regional planning grants, HUD issued an advance notice for public comment and then conducted a series of listening sessions and webinars to gather input, including a special session at APA's 2010 National Planning Conference in New Orleans. APA's recommendations helped shape the final grant program.

In addition, HUD announced the availability of $65 million for Choice Neighborhoods grants. HUD hopes that Choice Neighborhoods will become the next step in the evolution of the HOPE VI program. HOPE VI was launched in the early 1990s with the goal of transforming dilapidated public housing projects into vibrant, mixed-income neighborhoods. According to HUD, Choice Neighborhoods would extend the HOPE VI model to include other HUD-assisted affordable housing, allow more diverse redevelopment partnerships, and incorporate other community services such as health and education. In the initial round of pilot funding for Choice Neighborhoods, HUD opted to dedicate a portion of the funding specifically for planning with 12 to 15 grants.

Prospects for FY 2011

It is clear from the experience of TIGER grants and other competitive federal funds for communities that demand for these new planning resources will greatly exceed supply. For the first round of TIGER grants, DOT received nearly $60 billion in proposed projects but had only $1.5 billion available. Early reports from HUD indicate that much the same is true for the regional sustainability and community challenge grants.

My conversations with planning agencies suggest that the availability of these funds has already fueled important planning work and collaboration. In many places, the process of preparing the application has been a useful catalyst for change. One community used new federal livability initiatives as a launching point for the required update of its consolidated plan and in the process uncovered data that informed its subsequent grant application and led to a new policy focus in the community. Others have commented that linking TIGER grants and challenge grants has already helped remove barriers between transportation and community development agencies. Still, more funding is needed. One hundred million dollars for HUD's new planning grant program is great news, but it's still only the cost of one freeway ramp in a single interchange. 

Work on appropriations for FY 2011 is already well under way on Capitol Hill. In spite of the grim fiscal and political climate, the current outlook for many planning and sustainability programs is relatively good. The Obama administration has requested $150 million to continue the regional sustainability planning and community challenge grants. The House version of the HUD spending bill contains the requested amount, as does the version approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee. The two chambers have taken different approaches to the Choice Neighborhoods program: the House opted to continue funding HOPE VI ($200 million) and the Senate Appropriations Committee chose to provide $250 million for Choice Neighborhoods. 

The administration's budget proposal called for some significant changes related to livability programs at DOT. The budget requested $20 million to create an office of livability, $200 million for a planning-focused capacity-building program at the Federal Highway Administration, and $307 million in livability funding for existing Federal Transit Administration programs. The outlook for this funding is a little less certain. The House Appropriations Committee approved the proposed $527 million, but an amendment adopted on the floor prevents the use of highway trust funds for new livability programs unless it is approved in the full six-year surface transportation authorization. The Senate version omitted the $20 million for the office of livability but did include $200 million for the planning capacity building grants, which would be split between FTA and FHWA.

(See a summary of House-approved appropriations for DOT and HUD here. See Senate-approved appropriations here.)

Congress is also poised to continue the TIGER program in the coming fiscal year. TIGER began with $1.5 billion in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and continued in FY 2010 with an additional $600 million. The House bill calls for $400 million in FY 2011 for a third round of TIGER funds while the Senate bill would provide $800 million. Although the bulk of TIGER is reserved for capital projects, funds for planning were set aside in TIGER 2

There are other potential new planning resources in the appropriations pipeline for FY 2011. The Agriculture Department proposed funding for a healthy food finance initiative. The House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee approved $40 million, and the Senate Subcommittee approved $30 million. Both the House and Senate bills included $20 million for the program in the Department of Health and Human Services. The administration proposed additional resources through the Treasury Department's Community Development Financial Institutions Fund. USDA plans to expand its sustainability efforts and may eventually become a formal part of the interagency partnership begun by HUD, DOT, and EPA. EPA is also set to expand its successful smart growth program in FY 2011.

What's next?

Differences between the House and Senate spending bills must be reconciled. With midterm elections looming and many in Congress wary of deficit-spending politics, it is unlikely that individual appropriations bills will go through floor votes and a formal conference committee. Many of the bills are likely to be wrapped into an omnibus-spending bill. And with less than a month remaining in FY 2010, some sort of continuing resolution is all but inevitable.

Given these uncertainties, it is vital that Congress hears from us about the value and necessity of federal planning programs. Too often, members of Congress tell APA that there just isn't enough of a constituency for planning and sustainability programs. In today's environment, we cannot let that continue.

There remains great potential for planning to be strengthened and improved in some of the currently stalled legislation, most notably in transportation and climate change legislation. Planning is already prominent in the proposed transportation bills under discussion on Capitol Hill. New metropolitan mobility and "blueprint" planning components are widely discussed.

In a Labor Day speech in Milwaukee, President Obama attempted to revive the national debate on infrastructure investment by unveiling a new proposal. His plan would front load $50 billion in funding for a new six-year transportation bill. The proposal includes an infrastructure bank and a "race to the top" transit-oriented development program modeled on successful innovations in education funding. For the first time, high-speed rail and aviation would sensibly be incorporated into the surface transportation program. More importantly, the President's proposal would make planning and performance measures key drivers of investment decisions.

Likewise, any climate bill would likely include support for enhanced planning. The version passed by the House last year included support for adaptation planning and a new climate change component of federal transportation planning. The main proposals debated in the Senate included similar provisions. One of APA's 2010 Legislators of the Year, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) has aggressively pushed his "CLEAN-TEA" proposal to require new climate components for transportation plans and provide expanded funding for transportation planning.

The prospects for pre-election action on either transportation or climate change are remote. However, in spite of the stalemate on climate change, some on Capitol Hill hold out hope for including some aspects of various planning proposals in potential energy legislation. And, depending on the outcome of the election, action on transportation and infrastructure may be possible during a lame duck session, particularly because Congress would have to take some action by the end of the year to further extend transportation programs. Even if action is delayed until 2011 planning policy will be an important part of the coming debate.

Get informed and speak up for planning

The new focus in Washington offers a window of opportunity for planners and APA. I hope you will join us in the nation's capital for APA's 2010 Federal Policy & Program Briefing on September 26 and 27 and Planners' Day on Capitol Hill on September 28. Deliberations and actions in Washington impact every planner's job back home.

Highlights of APA's 2010 briefing include:

  • In-depth analyses of new programs and the funding outlook for FY 2011;
  • Presentations by leading figures from both Congress and the Obama administration who will offer insight into key planning-related legislation and funding proposals;
  • The National Design Professionals Symposium — a daylong collaboration with the American Institute of Architects and the American Society of Landscape Architects;
  • Special emphasis on the planning issues confronting "cities in transition" and the policy responses needed to restore their economic prosperity; and
  • Sessions on new federal grant opportunities with suggestions on how to secure investment in your community.

Stay for Planners' Day on Capitol Hill to tell your congressional representatives about the importance of good planning and personally demonstrate the strong support back home for investment in planning. APA will arrange your meeting.

Lawmakers' renewed interest in planning is welcome news. We know the value of planning and its critical role in addressing the nation's economic, social, and environmental challenges. But if our voices aren't heard loud and clear in the halls of Congress, we won't be able to sustain our progress. Join APA in Washington to speak up for planning!