Is Government Planning to Force You to Live in the City?
May 13, 2009 by Bob Livingston
Was President Barack Obama beginning efforts to engage in social engineering when he formed a partnership between the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)?
That’s a question posed in a report compiled by Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D., of The Heritage Foundation after he received a press release from the two government agencies announcing the formation of their pact.
According to the release, the partnership was formed to create “affordable, sustainable communities.” Included among its many goals are projects to:
- Develop a new cost index that combines housing and transportation costs into a single measure to better illuminate the true costs by “redefining affordability and making it transparent.”
- Encourage transportation choice.
- Require even more planning by the many federally funded regional planning entities that are already attempting to guide Americans toward a supposedly better life.
According to Utt, liberals have long—it began in the 1950s—held a bias against suburbanites and urban sprawl. They believe people should live in municipalities with strict zoning laws, impact fees and regulations to ensure something called smart growth while making greater use of public transportation and forgoing automobiles.
Data show that many Americans rejected that idea, preferring instead to move away from the city center where they found more affordable housing, better public services and education systems. What they sacrificed with longer commutes, they benefited from the savings in housing and what they believed was a more comfortable lifestyle.
Now advocates of the smart growth movement are taking a different tack, and they have enlisted the Federal Government in their efforts. Although reams of data exist showing that the cost of suburban living is comparable to—if not less than—living in a municipality, smart growth advocates contend the data overlook many hidden costs of suburban lifestyles. These asserted costs, according to Utt, rely on unsubstantiated allegations of greater infrastructure costs, environmental degradation and the high cost of automobile operation.
Smart growth advocates contend that essential services can better be delivered to Americans living in higher density developments—such as town houses and high rise apartments—through public transportation, thereby freeing commuters from their cars. Additional benefits come through the preservation of land, reduced carbon footprints, greater social interaction through forced proximity, and higher aesthetic standard in community and housing design as government planners and politicians assume greater responsibility for artistic choices, according to Utt.
The DOT’s own data, from a study conducted in 2004, shows that public transportation is not an inexpensive mode of transit, as its proponents claim, and in fact is far more expensive than travel by automobile. Begun as an annual report to Congress, the DOT was forced to cancel further studies after it revealed that public transit survives only on massive taxpayer subsidies that are generally hidden and excluded from any discussion of the costs and benefits of different modes of travel.
According to The Heritage Foundation, data from 2006 (the most recent year for which data is available) shows that the federal subsidy for public transportation was $165.61 per 1,000 passenger miles, while automobiles earned the federal government a profit of 93 cents per 1,000 passenger miles through federal fuel taxes.
Currently, HUD requires states, counties and cities to conduct five-year Consolidated Plans estimating housing status and needs, and DOT requires the federally funded Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO) to develop Long-Range Transportation Plans and four-year Transportation Improvement Programs.
Yet, despite billions of dollars of spending on these plans, housing is less affordable than ever and traffic congestion is worse and infrastructure continues to dilapidate, Lott writes.
Now, through the partnership, the agencies have more money and more clout with which to press more of a smart growth agenda on the American people.
But the smart growth idea, writes Utt, exhibits a child-like faith in government planning, a concept that half the world quickly abandoned in the late 1980s when all of the formerly socialist countries (except, of course, for Cuba and North Korea) rejected state planning in favor of private-sector initiative, economic freedom and market solutions.
While some may hope this effort is nothing more than the President’s attempt to use the White House as a bully pulpit to encourage Americans to mimic the urbane lifestyle he experienced in an upscale Chicago neighborhood, the record of past such efforts by the federal government is more troubling, Utt writes.
In January 1998, President Bill Clinton’s Environmental Protection Agency threatened to withhold federal transportation funds from the Atlanta region because it did not meet federal air-quality standards and said that it would agree to restore the funding only if the state of Georgia dramatically altered its land-use and transportation policies in ways similar to those characteristic of the smart growth polices that discourage single-family detached housing and encourage public transit use and investment. Georgia agreed to do this, at least through the waning days of the Clinton administration, but soon abandoned the policies when leadership in Washington changed.
Carol Browner headed the EPA when the threat was imposed on Atlanta under Clinton. Today, she is assistant to the president for Energy and Climate Change. With the prospect of even worse to come from this new DOT-HUD partnership on sustainable communities, Utt suggests that those who are skeptical of the President’s grandiose efforts at social engineering should be on the alert.