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Communities Need Smart Growth

Like it or not, the federal government has played a major role in shaping the places Americans live. Too often federal intervention has been to limit Americans’ choices of where to live and how to travel and to diminish the quality of life in their communities, rather than to increase choices and to promote livability.

The federal government has been involved with every phase of urban development in this country since we started taking land away from American Indians. We subsidized the railroads, airports, the interstate highway system, and the dream of home ownership, whether directly, by cash outlays, or by the way that we structured the tax and finance system.

Some claim the federal government should not be involved in housing. Yet, it is. Federal housing programs for the poor, while well-intentioned and useful, are very limited and under-financed. Today our biggest housing subsidy has been directed at the two-thirds of Americans who own their homes. I support the deductibility of mortgage interest and property taxes, but this subsidy dwarfs the money spent on the one-third of American households who rent their homes.

For 40 years the federal government spent billions upon billions of dollars to build new freeways, which too often resulted in the destruction of housing and displacement of people in poor minority neighborhoods. At the same time, the federal government chose to give much smaller amounts of money for transit or intercity rail. For instance, the money spent on one freeway project, Boston’s Big Dig, exceeds all the subsidies Amtrak received in its first 25 years.

The federal flood insurance program perversely subsidizes development in areas that are repeatedly flooded rather than encouraging relocation. Legislation I co-sponsored with Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.) aims to reduce the subsidy for developing in harm’s way. The legislation, H.R. 253, passed the House in November and the Senate this month.

While newer communities struggle with increasing traffic congestion and escalating taxes to pay for all the new growth, older communities suffer from crumbling schools and neglected infrastructure, abandoned housing stock, failing businesses, and citizens who fall further behind the prosperity curve. Neither community comes out ahead.

It shouldn’t be this way. The federal government should be helping, not hindering, local communities’ efforts to offer more choices in how to travel and to become more livable.

Consider the recently passed House surface transportation bill (H.R. 3550). It allocates about 19 percent of the $275 billion to transit and the bulk of the remainder to cars and trucks. But even car owners in a sun belt city like Phoenix have different priorities: According to a December 2002 survey commissioned by the Arizona Automobile Association, the responding members would spend $100 in the following manner: $19.97 for new roads; $39.74 for maintenance and/or expansion of existing roads; $28.76 for public transit; and $11.54 for bicycle and pedestrian projects.

We need to do more to make sure that federal and quasi-federal tax programs and institutions are supporting a full range of housing choices and not supporting a one-size-fits-all solution. The households and families of 21st century America are no longer the stereotypical suburban families of the “Ozzie and Harriet” sitcom from 50 years ago. Today, only one household in four is made up of two married parents and a child 18 or younger, and almost 60 percent of all households are one or two persons.

Tax and spending policies should be neutral so that people are not influenced into decisions about where to live and how to travel by different federal match ratios. Many additional opportunities exist for expanding tax-reform policies, such as making permanent the preferential tax treatment of brownfields cleanup or extending tax credits to owners of historic residential property.

The federal government — as the largest landowner, landlord and employer in the country — must lead by example. The first example it should set is to stop exempting itself from the rules and regulations the rest of America must follow. Despite past presidential executive orders, many federal agencies still contribute to sprawl rather than lead the rejuvenation of developed areas.

I have introduced legislation, for example, that would require the U.S. Postal Service to obey local land-use laws and zoning codes when siting a new facility. It is a sad irony that the Postal Service allowed more public input into the selection of the Elvis stamp than it routinely does into its decision to close or relocate a facility — a decision that touches the hearts and souls of thousands of communities across the country. This one small change at a single federal agency could help anchor struggling downtowns nationwide and stabilize thousands of small businesses.

The federal government should get out of the sprawl subsidy business and start offering its citizens more choices, more flexibility and more help, so that there will be many American dreams in the 21st century, not just one.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) is a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

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