APTA | Passenger Transport
November 8, 2010

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New Grant Series: The ‘Feds’ Actually Listening to Cities, Regions

WASHINGTON—For years, I’ve been among those bemoaning the “silo” effect of federal departments that rarely discuss or line up their field operations. The result is a significant waste of money plus lost opportunities to make the national government’s programs—for roads and housing and environmental protection, for example—work in tandem and produce better results.

But a new leaf has been turned by the Obama administration—a legacy one hopes will outlast the president’s current tough political roller-coaster ride.

The new leaf is the presidentially blessed efforts of the agencies in charge of urban development, transportation and environmental protection—with agriculture and energy watching with interest—to assemble members of their separate staffs around the same table. Their assignment: to select winners in a series of highly competitive grant programs, cumulatively titled the Partnership for Sustainable Communities.

In October, $409.5 million was awarded to several dozen entries—out of 1,000-plus applications—for programs the president says are “designed to get the biggest bang for our tax dollar buck.”

The dynamics differ radically from standard federal grant-in-aid programs—administered by formula or, if competitive at all, by officials focused exclusively on their own subject area and often oblivious to potentially negative side effects.

The new approach, says Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, is “bottom-up,” tapping insight and innovation from the field, rather than “the old Washington playbook of dictating how communities can invest their grants.”

And the federal officials even invited representatives of 14 foundations, with decades of experience in local community building, to sit at the judging table with them.

One winner was Northeast Ohio, where the Cleveland-Akron region has been literally at the economic precipice, triggered by industrial shrinkage, exacerbated by decades of suburbs pulling population out of the central cities. The area’s Regional Prosperity Initiative, joined by virtually all the major city and county governments, housing authorities and key transportation agencies, won a joint housing-transportation grant of $4.2 million.

The Northeast Ohio coalition set goals and strategies to re-energize struggling communities, provide mobility counseling for poor families, train a 21st-century workforce, adopt a “fix-it-first” housing strategy, and coordinate land-use planning with a goal of an environment—and tax base—that’s sustainable.

Will the grant reverse Northeast Ohio’s negative course? There’s no telling now. But the fact that the local agencies could and did work together in the competition, engaging Cleveland State University in their effort, raising $2.4 million matching funds on their own, suggests a heartening breakthrough toward regional cohesion and strategic thinking.

One of the most imaginative planning grants went to the Grand Boulevard Initiative, an effort to convert the San Francisco Bay area’s El Camino Real, a 43-mile state highway marked by low-grade strip commercial development with few efficient concentrations of housing and jobs, into a boulevard-like “complete street.” Five local towns will work together to revise their land-use plans and focus future development near transit stops.

Many of the grants were also for construction, some under the Transportation Department’s TIGER grant program. Atlanta, for example, received $47 million to create a streetcar line between the Centennial Olympic Park downtown and the Martin Luther King Jr. historic district. Long a foot-dragger on public transit, Atlanta was “a fabulous example,” Transportation Department official Beth Osborne explains, by coming back with a strong ($20 million) local pledge after failing with a smaller local commitment in an earlier round.

A major share of the applications were for small towns and rural areas—for example, $1.3 million for a Colorado Sustainable Main Streets Initiative to help three small communities plan redevelopment of their struggling downtowns, focusing on pedestrian-friendly transit, historical preservation, affordable housing and arts and culture.

Will Washington check on the results of all these grants? Yes, says Shelley Poticha, a key Housing and Urban Development Department official coordinating the awards. “We’re ramping up to ask our awardees to set up benchmarks, establish goals, model the results. This needs to be a new age of data and information.”

The big hope, Poticha adds, is “to help cities and regions be strategic—helping them come out of the recession with resilient game plans.” And to “allow local officials,” says Donald Borut, executive director of the National League of Cities, “to help define federal policy in a way we rarely see.”

But are these awards game-changers for the federal bureaucracy itself? The process wasn’t easy. Officials had to learn other departments’ lingo, acronyms, processes. And for career bureaucrats, there are still no personnel performance points for working cooperatively with other departments.

And then there’s Congress, with its constant political tug to fund earmarked, unvetted projects.

Still, a window to a more responsive, pro-town, pro-city, pro-region federal government has been opened. Let’s hope neither old-fashioned pork barrel practices nor the bitterly negative politics of these times slam it shut.

E-mail Neal Peirce here.
©2010, The Washington Post Writers Group

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