Category Archives: Federal Policy
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The 2014 Summit for Smart Growth and Sustainable Communities at Hotel Bethlehem
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We’ve all seen the copious quantities of garbage cans that line our streets and trash closets on collection day and it seems almost impossible that anyone could run out of garbage but it’s happened to Sweden. The country has actually run out of trash.
Cities in Sweden burn garbage for the energy to power their buildings and plants; nearly half of the structures in Oslo are powered by the burning of garbage. Sweden’s use of garbage for fuel, coupled with their extensive and popular recycling programs leaves only 4 percent of their solid waste going to landfills. What percent of household trash from the United States ends up in a landfill, you ask? An estimated 50 percent. In fact, one garbage burning plant owner in Oslo has expressed interest in purchasing American garbage. They’re already paying neighboring countries for their trash.
Available data for landfill use in the United States is a little bit old, but nevertheless startling. In 2003, Americans landfilled 2.46lbs of garbage…per person….per day. We have 3,091 active landfills across the states and while we are in no danger of running out of fill, we should consider that we may run out of land.
In the Lehigh Valley, there has been some discussion about the necessary expansion of the IESI Bethlehem landfill that operates off of Applebutter Road in Lower Saucon Township. The expansion would require a rezoning of the nearby area to accommodate waste, but the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission voted against this redesignation. So, where is the trash to go? The United States recycles 34.7 percent of its Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), burns 11.7 percent of it and discards 53.7 percent. With our population and rate of consumption, this leaves us with a lot of stuff packing our landfills while our municipalities are opposed to expanding landfills.
Should we start burning our trash for energy like Sweden? Try to recycle more? Or should we sell our trash?
What do you think is the SUSTAINABLE solution for the Lehigh Valley?
After years of financial distress, Detroit filed for Chapter 9 Municipal Bankruptcy late last week. It becomes the first major city in United States history to do so.
Detroit has debt totaling $18 million. The unemployment rate in the city recently peaked at 28 percent and while it is has been declining, it remains at over 16 percent. The rate of crime is high and the industrial plants that used to populate the city are folding or leaving the city. Detroit is also facing grossly underfunded pension obligations and they will argue that the court should relieve them of these pension obligations. Naturally, their retirees and unions are beginning to launch a fierce battle against this.
While Pennsylvanian cities and municipalities are not yet facing the degree of financial strife that plagues Detroit, its distressed areas are met with similar considerations. Should Detroit be relieved of their pension obligations, it will set a precedent relevant in Pennsylvania where municipalities are mandated to fulfill the pension promises they have made to police and firemen under PA Act 111. They can receive financially distressed status under PA Act 47, which allows them to restructure their debt and consolidate or merge with neighboring municipalities to ease their individual burden. There are many municipalities who are now realizing the enormity of their pension obligations, and have very few choices except bankruptcy. Twenty municipalities in the state, including its capital, already have Act 47 designation that has helped them stabilize their financial status, but hasn’t provided stable, long term solutions to their economic problems.
While Act 47 allows municipal consolidation, there needs to be better understanding of the benefits of merging. A financially failed municipality with heavy debt and pension obligations is not a promising merge partner for a healthy, neighboring municipality. However, the possibility of shared services and decreased cost in service provision to the stronger municipality should be used as a selling point in these consolidation discussions. Both municipalities can benefit from consolidation and eventually provide higher quality, lower cost services to their constituents while one emerges from Act 47, distressed status.
If these negotiations and state laws are your interest, keep your eyes open for more information on Renew Lehigh Valley’s smart growth conference coming this fall. One of the available workshops will focus exclusively on Act 47, Act 111 and municipal bankruptcy in Pennsylvania with an expert panel featuring Fred Reddig from Pennsylvania’s Local Government Commission and Tom Baldridge of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce.
Owning and driving a car, once deemed a core aspect of any American’s life, is now on the decline in this country.
A recent New York Times article titled, “The End of Car Culture” examines how Americans are “buying fewer cars, driving less and getting fewer licenses.” The hypothesis is that the country has passed its peak driving period and that different modes of transportation are now edging their way into the transportation market that had previously been inundated with personal cars. Even the percentage of individuals that have a drivers license in their teens, 20s and 30s has declined significantly since 1983.
The data that the article used was adjusted for population and found that the quantity of miles driven by Americans peaked in 2005 and has declined since. While some have speculated that the decline in cars purchased and miles driven was a cause of the recession, those declines actually began two to three years prior. There are also other theories to the cause of this trend.
“Different things are converging which suggest that we are witnessing a long-term cultural shift,” said Mimi Sheller, a sociology professor at Drexel University and director of its Mobilities Research and Policy Center. She cites various factors: the Internet makes telecommuting possible and allows people to feel more connected without driving to meet friends. The renewal of center cities has made the suburbs less appealing and has drawn empty nesters back in. Likewise the rise in cellphones and car-pooling apps has facilitated more flexible commuting arrangements, including the evolution of shared van services for getting to work.
Reduced use of personal vehicles has positive results for the environment and carbon emissions. Transportation is the second leading source of carbon emissions (power plants are first). New York’s bike sharing program is growing in popularity as tolls increase and funding that promotes car ownership decreases.
To further support the idea that this trend is more than economic, the age group of those most likely to purchase a car and to have a license is increasingly the elderly. The youth are expressing less interest in cars and more interest in living in communities where a car is unnecessary and the public transit is satisfactory.
The article mentions Bay Area Rapid Transit, a transportation system in San Francisco that optimizes bus routes by looking at frequency of use and land use in the area. Our very own LANta is in the process of studying Bus Rapid Transit for the Lehigh Valley. Their report is part of the Envision Lehigh Valley project and will be released soon. The trend across the country points to the need for multimodal transportation options and this is an important step by LANta. As our population increases in city centers, there is less need for a personal car but short bus routes and safe biking paths are still important transit developments. All of these options are environmentally promising and are sustainable alternatives to individuals relying solely on their personal car.
The phrase “smart growth” has a liberal connotation, but that label is unfairly given. Smart growth policies benefit everyone. It is not a partisan issue; at least it shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Conservatives often attack smart growth policies, but I think this is a result of a misunderstanding of the impact smart growth policies can have on a community.
David Goldstein wrote a blog post highlighting the reasons why conservatives should support smart growth policies, namely “economic freedom, limited government, and responsibility.” (Read the blog post here.) He brings up many good points that should appeal to both sides of the political divide. He sums up his argument perfectly when he writes:“Smart Growth looks at these issues in a holistic way. It does not advocate eliminating land use planning, nor letting anyone borrow money regardless of their ability to repay. But in many ways it does reduce the heavy hand of government and other big bureaucracies to tell you what to do.” (emphasis original)
Smart growth policies will benefit our entire community, but we must join together in the effort to establish these policies in our communities first. Liberals, conservatives, and independents alike should stand together to implement these changes to improve our communities. No matter the demographics or political affiliations, smart growth will benefit us all.
Unless this is the first Crossroads article that you have read (in which case, welcome!), I assume that you’ve noticed a trend throughout many of our posts on smart growth: studies show that average people want it, local mayors and town boards aim for it, small businesses benefit from it, and neighborhoods thrive on it. We’ve written about studies that demonstrate how various principles of smart growth benefit the economy, the environment, and public and private health. Lately, we’ve been able to blog about how the nation is seeing more and more of it.
But all too often, the overwhelming evidence of local and nonpartisan support for smart growth feels a bit…lacking. Sure, a survey of 2,071 people from the United States shows that 77% of them support smart design programs. Yeah, an analysis of how local transportation money has been spent proves that complete streets are spreading both in major cities like New York and San Francisco and in small towns in Idaho. But what does that mean for us? These are local efforts, and while they demonstrate a trend, we have yet to feel that “woah…Smart Growth is awesome” moment for ourselves in the Lehigh Valley.
But let’s say that this is your first visit to Crossroads. Have you ever heard of “smart growth” before?
Even if you do not know the term, chances are pretty good that you are familiar with the principles it represents. You wish it was easier to use mass transit, you’ve heard of “urban revitalization,” and you’ve noticed at some point in your life that it feels safer to walk on a sidewalk than on a poorly lit street on which cars routinely try to shatter the sound barrier. You want to feel safe letting your kids ride their bikes to friends’ houses, and you wish you could walk around the corner when you need one or two things for dinner, instead of having to jump in the car.
The guiding phrase itself is far less important than the practices it stands for. While the common word is a useful way to connect with like-minded groups and succinctly refer to a varying collection of thoughts, to the average person “smart growth” changes nothing — but the installation of sidewalks does.
Using and spreading the obscure phrase will not help us promote “smart growth” among the average people (all of us) who stand to benefit from it. Only two things that can do that. One, as I mentioned before, is the “woah” moment. Imagine, after having lived in Allentown for the past 10, 20, or 30 years, leaving. Imagine returning five years later. Imagine coming back to find a thriving downtown. Fantastic, affordable, safe places to live, just blocks from restaurants, bars, and your office. Drastically less traffic on the streets. Unobtrusive bike racks on curbs, for you, your neighbors, and your coworkers. A healthy, vibrant, safe, happy community.
If we continue to move forward, that’s coming. But it might take a bit of time, and it will definitely take a bit of work.
Until that moment, we rely on the second thing to promote the movement: the making mainstream of principles included in “smart growth.” While we try to work towards that through Crossroads, Facebook, and Twitter, we are clearly biased. What we need is institutional acknowledgment of Smart Growth.
Fortunately, we have lately begun to see this on the federal level. The EPA supports sustainable development. The President and the Department of Transportation and the continue to push for mass transit and alternative transportation, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development sponsors many programs consistent with Smart Growth.
There’s also the Centers for Disease Control.
While economic and environmental benefits are frequently touted by the smart growth community, public health benefits are sometimes mentioned as an afterthought. They’re just as important, just as easy to prove, but somehow, they tend to take a backseat. RenewLV has made an effort over the past year or so to bring public health to the forefront of our push for smart growth in the Valley, both through the inevitable health benefits that come from other policies (such as walkability and mass transit), and through the establishment of a Regional Health Department (see here for more information about this campaign).
The federal government appears to see the health benefits of smart growth, as well. The CDC has a page dedicated to “community design.” It echos the public health arguments that RenewLV has made:
Community design refers to all the elements of a community that are human-made and form the physical characteristics of that community. It includes:
- buildings, such as schools, workplaces, and homes,
- parks and recreation areas,
- transportation systems, and
- places to buy food.
Well-designed communities can improve public health. The design and maintenance of our communities may be related to:
- chronic diseases,
- injury rates,
- mental health, and
- the effects of climate change.
Through design, communities can attempt to offer residents:
- opportunities to incorporate routine physical activity into our everyday lives,
- cleaner air,
- lower risk of injury from vehicle accidents, and
- decreased effects of climate change.
According to the page, the CDC actively tracks data on community design as it relates to public health concerns including “types of transportation to work, air quality (ozone and PM 2.5), childhood lead poisoning, and motor vehicle-related fatalities.”
The page is not promoting anything specific, nor does it represent the transformation of the CDC into a leading “smart growth” advocacy group. It simply represents an acknowledgment that Smart Growth has real effects: this is not some crazy scheme based on theory and fantasy. Smart Growth is real, it benefits everyone in many different ways, and it can be successful in any urban community.
Last week, Americans had the privilege of enjoying a live broadcast as the 112th Congress presented its latest round of political theater. As the clock ticked closer to a government shutdown, it started to feel as if the split-party Congress had zero chance of reaching a budget agreement. For the entire long and painful first act, we watched, read, and listened as politicians from both sides of the aisle threw blame at each other harder than any pitcher hurled a fastball on opening weekend. Neither side could agree on terms: House Majority Leader John Boehner struggled to balance the demands of the Tea Party and the less-rabid members of his party, while the Democrats fought to use their remaining powers of control to counter attacks on social policies wholly unrelated to fiscal conservation. Meanwhile, President Obama was left sounding like the disappointed father of two bickering children, pleading with them to just share the crummy plastic toys.
But late Friday night, with less than two hours left before the shutdown, the curtain closed for intermission when a deal was finally reached (although according to today’s NY Times, the agreement may be at risk). This news was certainly welcome to government workers, families of soldiers, homebuyers, visitors to national parks, and countless others. However, the details of the deal were not immediately known. All that was announced was that cuts to federal spending for the rest of fiscal year 2011 (through this September) will total around $39 billion — more than the $33 billion the Democrats proposed in their original compromise, but less than the $61 billion called for by the GOP-controlled House, or the staggering $100 billion screamed for by the most vocal of the Tea Party. The suspense was palpable, a perfect cliff hanger for the second act.
On Monday, Act II began as the specifics of the compromise bill started to trickle out. The entire bill is far too lengthy to discuss on Crossroads, but here are the areas of the most importance to RenewLV and the smart growth community.
Please note: information is still a tad bit sketchy, and specifics may change by the time the bill is fully passed. Every effort has been made to check all information against the House’s and Senate’s Appropriation Committee’s multiple press releases, all dated Monday, 4/11 and Tuesday, 4/12.
Housing and Urban Development
This one hurts, folks. The Department of HUD suffered a host of brutal cuts, including a $942 million cut to HUD’s community development fund. Additionally, there is a 16% ($650 million) cut to the Community Development Block Grant, a 33% ($50 million) reduction to the Sustainable Communities Initiative, and a 19% ($456 million) cut to the public housing capital fund. Fortunately, there is a piece of great news to take the edge off: the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG; see below for more information), which stood to lose almost one-third of its funding ($285 million), will only be cut by $20 million. Even that (relatively) small amount can do harm, but we certainly can be thankful that the originally proposed cut did not come to fruition.
The Environmental Protection Agency: Although the EPA’s total budget is decreased by a painful $1.6 billion (16%) from last year, it could be worse. Last week’s GOP attempts to reverse various climate regulations and block the EPA’s ability to create rules on global warming were successfully defeated.
Conservation: The budget deal represents a 12% cut to the National Resources Conservation Service, including a tough 55% cut to the Watershed Rehabilitation program. Land and Water Conservation Fund (land acquisition) programs are cut by 33% ($149 million).
Public Health: Thankfully, good news on this front. While there are various cuts to health care programs, reductions to many public and community health initiatives have been avoided. The Prevention and Public Health Fund (discussed in this Crossroads post) was untouched, despite a $750 million cut proposed by the GOP. However, the CDC’s budget was cut by 9%.
Food and Drug Administration: Although the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s funding decreases by 1%, The FDA’s FY 2011 budget actually sees a 4% increase over last year. As the Senate press release points out, “this funding level will allow the FDA to begin implementation of the recently passed Food Safety Modernization Act.”
Compared with 2010, there is a $900 million cut to transit spending. Additionally, President Obama’s proposed high-speed rail system faces a $1.5 billion cut for FY 2011, while about $400 million in last year’s funds were rescinded. This leaves $1 billion for this year.
The President’s “Race to the Top” program escaped cuts, but the Pell Grant program has been trimmed – grants can no longer be used for summer school.
While I am grateful that the draconian $61 billion in spending cuts from H.R. 1 did not pass, the cuts in this budget compromise are still, in simple terms, brutal. In fact, the cuts are the largest in U.S. history. I am particularly happy about the survival of the Community Service Block Grant, but even that relatively small reduction, combined with the other cuts to HUD, have the potential to do great harm.
I wrote about potential reductions to the CSBG and CDBG back in February, after President Obama announced his original budget proposal. The community service grants represent a significant source of funding to organizations such as the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley (CACLV), which are crucial to job creation and economic development. I don’t think that anyone, left or right, would disagree with me in saying that unnecessary spending must be reduced in order to close the federal deficit. However, cuts that come at the expense of vulnerable citizens and actually hurt the economy, such as those to community development and transportation programs (which have the potential to create a multitude of jobs and stimulate the economy), are just plain foolish.
An announcement this month from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) serves to reinforce one of the key reasons that RenewLV supports the establishment of a regional health department, which would encompass all of Lehigh and Northampton counties.
On February 9, HHS announced a $750 million investment in prevention and public health for 2011. Building on a similar $500 million investment last year, the program is funded through the Prevention and Public Health Fund, an important component of the Affordable Care Act. According to the HHS press release, the $750 million, which will be distributed mainly through grants, is broken down into four categories:
- Community Prevention ($298 million): These funds will be used to help promote health and wellness in local communities, including efforts to prevent and reduce tobacco use; improve nutrition and increase physical activity to prevent obesity; and coordinate and focus efforts to prevent chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
- Clinical Prevention ($182 million): These funds will help improve access to preventive care, including increasing awareness of the new prevention benefits provided under the new health care law. They will also help increase availability and use of immunizations, and help integrate behavioral health services into primary care settings.
- Public Health Infrastructure ($137 million): These funds will help state and local health departments meet 21st century challenges, including investments in information technology and training for the public health workforce to enable detection and response to infectious disease outbreaks and other health threats.
- Research and Tracking ($133 million): These funds will help collect data to monitor the impact of the Affordable Care Act on the health of Americans and identify and disseminate evidence-based recommendations on important public health challenges.
There are two things worth noting from the press release. First, a grant within the “Public Health Infrastructure” category could be used to help offset the initial investment required to create a regional health department. While this is just speculation for now (specific details regarding the grants are not easily accessible), it seems likely that such a project to improve local public health infrastructure would be able to find support.
Second, a regional health department would have more success when applying for grants under all four categories. A larger health department presents a more competitive application than two smaller ones. The Allentown and Bethlehem Health Bureaus have a very poor chance of winning grants if larger municipalities such as Philadelphia choose to apply to the same programs. The proposed regional health department, however, covering over 600,000 people, would have much improved chances, and would be more likely to net the federal money.
This competitive advantage would combine with an increase in state funding. We know that a regional health department would receive $3 million from the state that the two current independent health bureaus are missing out on. State public health funding is allocated on a per capita basis under Act 315 and Act 12. Therefore, a larger population serviced by a regional department would be eligible for greater funding.
Keep in mind that the Affordable Health Act’s Prevention and Public Health Fund represents a $15 billion investment over 10 years. So, a regional health department would be competitively applying for these specific funds for at least the next 8 years, in addition to countless other federal grants.
For more information, take a look at the following resources:
By now, you have probably seen President Obama’s proposed 2012 budget. If you are reading this blog, it’s likely that you are a smart growth advocate. If that’s the case, chances are that you are as torn and surprised as I am at how the President has managed to both promote a key principle of smart growth, while critically wounding another.
I’ll start with the bad news. Obama’s budget reflects a proposal he alluded to in his State of the Union address: cutting in half the Community Service Block Grant (CSBG). The CSBG is a main source of funding for community action groups (including the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, a major partner of RenewLV). These groups provide a multitude of services, with the overall goal of helping people achieve economic security. They directly and indirectly promote job creation, small business ownership, and other programs to help those in need get back on their feet. The effects of this cut in funding, if it is passes in the final budget, may prove devastating. Take a look at the National Association for State Community Service Programs’ (NASCSP) press release regarding the cut.
The good news is that the budget proposal contains a few significant measures to invest in smart growth programs. Smart Growth America‘s CEO and President Geoffrey Anderson posted a statement on the organization’s blog applauding the President. He notes the particular provisions endorsed by Smart Growth America, including those which (quote):
- Support an interagency effort led by HUD and the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration to help distressed cities and regions utilize public resources more strategically and to form partnerships to support job creation and economic development.
- Stimulate economic growth in areas stymied by brownfields by providing technical assistance towns and cities and maintaining an area-wide planning program to integrate sustainable community development with environmental remediation activities.
- Invest in sustainable, innovative communities by providing $150 million to create incentives for more communities to develop comprehensive housing and transportation plans that result in sustainable development, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and increased transit-accessible housing.
- Preserve the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program. This will continue to enable State and local governments to address infrastructure, affordable housing, and economic development needs in their communities. [Note that the CDBG is different from the CSBG. The CDBG also faces proposed cuts.]
- Include a six-year framework for funding surface transportation programs to modernize the country’s transportation infrastructure, create jobs, and create sustainable investments for long-term economic growth. The President plans to work with the Congress to ensure that the plan will not increase the deficit. This type of reform are precisely in line with recent polls, including one released today by the Rockefeller Foundation which shows that voters believe strongly that providing a modern, safe infrastructure is a primary role of our government.
- Promote infrastructure repair policies that will ensure that transportation agencies stop siphoning off money intended to rehabilitate bridges and highways.
It is great to see that the President has produced a fiscally responsible budget that promotes aspects of smart growth. However, the vision shared by organizations like RenewLV are not limited to a few specific programs and resources. Smart growth encourages those initiatives as a means to achieving a viable urban reality, in which American cities live up to their promised potential. Cutting the CSBG has the potential to destroy programs that fight poverty, aid small businesses, help children receive an education, and promote safe, diverse, healthy neighborhoods. In other words, community action groups support economic growth and directly work towards smart cities.
Fortunately, the budget proposal is just that: a proposal. In the coming months, the President will have to negotiate with advocates from around the nation and with Congress in order to draft a finalized budget. Please, consider lending support to the effort to save the CSBG. Sign this online petition to remind the President of the importance of community action groups, and stay tuned to RenewLV and CACLV for updates.
The proposed federal support for transportation and infrastructure initiatives are fantastic. It’s just a shame that these provisions come alongside such damaging cuts to our communities.