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Now the feds are pushing ‘smart growth’

The recent meeting in Frederick was billed as the Sixth Annual Mid-Atlantic Regional Planning Roundtable, an opportunity for representatives of metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs, using federal jargon) in Maryland and neighboring states to compare notes on the challenges they face.

The overall theme of the session was achieving “smart growth” at the regional scale. The challenges shared in common include contending with increasing traffic congestion while trying to accommodate growth, reducing air emissions, responding to community concerns and, above all, staying within the ever more stringent cost constraints for new highways and public transit service.

In attendance were, among others, folks from the Delaware Valley, Washington and Richmond regional planning groups, and even a featured guest speaker from SANDAG, the innovative metropolitan planning group for the greater San Diego area.

Dunbar Brooks, representing the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, announced that a new long-range planning effort is underway locally, starting with a relatively unconstrained look at what this region will require in the way of new transportation investments. More on that in a future column.

Perhaps the big news of the day was the message from a new member of the Obama administration. John Frece arrived behind schedule for his allotted time. He asked to be excused because he had been on a whirlwind schedule of presentations in which he was delivering the same message: The federal government is getting serious about planning and development practices that will lead to sustainable communities.

While Frece is very new to Washington, his is not at all new to the subject of smart growth. A former journalist, having covered politics and government for The Baltimore Sun, he became the spokesman for the state’s Office of Smart Growth during the administration of Gov. Parris N. Glendening. In that role he helped steer the passage of Maryland’s smart growth principles that were placed into law in 1997. With the end of Glendening’s second term, Frece moved over to the University of Maryland, College Park. There he was assistant director of the National Smart Growth Center.

New EPA office

Most recently, Frece has moved on to the Environmental Protection Agency, where he now heads the Development, Community and Environment Division. The practitioners working in this field know it as EPA’s Smart Growth office. The division’s mission is to work with community and government leaders to raise awareness of smart growth principles; to engage the architecture, transportation, construction, real estate and financial industries to identify and overcome barriers to smart growth; and to highlight the achievements of communities that have improved the quality of life of their residents through the application of smart growth techniques.

But EPA is only one federal agency among many that have an influence on the way that localities develop. With that recognition, Frece enthusiastically reported on the new Partnership for Sustainable Communities. On June 19, the EPA joined with the housing and transportation departments in announcing this new partnership. The EPA-HUD-DOT partnership is intended “to help improve access to affordable housing, more transportation options and lower transportation costs while protecting the environment in communities nationwide.”

The three federal agencies intend to pursue these ambitious goals by means a set of “guiding livability principles.” According to the EPA Web site, the partnership agreement will also coordinate federal housing, transportation and other infrastructure investments to “protect the environment, promote equitable development and help to address the challenges of climate change.”

Actions at the federal level will not produce needed results without cooperation from states and localities. One mechanism for achieving this cooperation is to look at those very metropolitan agencies responsible for long-range planning — the MPOs. The federal view, Frece reports, is that while some MPOs across the nation are very forward thinking, many are dysfunctional.

We can expect to see efforts at reforming MPO structures and operations in the new surface transportation legislation that is working its way through Congress, with reauthorization now expected sometime in 2010.

Before applying any new “sticks” to MPOs, the federal agencies will be trying “carrots” in the form of new incentive grants. As Frece noted, the test of whether the new effort is serious will be when we see if the guiding principles are reflected in new regulations, in the legislative process and in the grant making decisions of the federal agencies. We should get a good early evaluation of the partnership as the surface transportation bill takes final shape in the coming year.

Joe Nathanson heads Urban Information Associates, Inc., a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He writes a monthly column for The Daily Record and can be contacted at urbaninfo@comcast.net.

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