Urge delegation to back Livable Communities Act

Posted Sept. 26, 2010, at 8:07 p.m.

Increasingly, Mainers and people throughout the country are recognizing the impact that land use and transportation planning can have on building strong, vibrant communities and making it easier for families to make ends meet. When we channel development to direct it toward downtowns and facilitate public transportation within and between towns, we reduce families’ transportation costs, create new employment opportunities and preserve and improve our quality of life.

Maine has been a leader in many ways on this front. Laws passed in recent years channel development along more sustainable paths. Maine Housing has made access to transportation and proximity to downtowns a key factor in planning affordable housing development. Communities throughout the state are coming together to better coordinate on planning.

Unfortunately, it is difficult for communities to cultivate the resources to develop and implement these plans. That’s why Opportunity Maine is urging Maine’s congressional delegation to sign on as cosponsors of the Livable Communities Act (S 1619) (HR 4690). This bill aims to redevelop downtowns, and would create jobs, cut families’ expenses and strengthen Maine’s communities.

The bill would create an Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities in the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That office would bring the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Early Development and the Department of Transportation together to encourage sustainable development and ensure comprehensive approaches to the challenges of building housing and transportation infrastructure for the 21st century. It is essential that these agencies work more closely together, and this is an excellent way to formalize that working relationship and to give it structure and direction.

The office would administer a $475 million grant program to support comprehensive regional planning that recognizes the interconnectedness of transportation, housing, community and economic development and environmental sustainability — with specific set-asides for rural, town/small city and large city regions. This would ensure that states like Maine could participate.

The office would also establish a three-year, $2.2 billion grant program for communities to build and improve affordable housing, strengthen transportation infrastructure, promote downtown redevelopment, create pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, redevelop brownfields, and support economic development — in rural, suburban, and urban settings.

The passage of the Livable Communities Act would have enormous effects for Maine’s rural communities. By promoting livable communities, the bill would strengthen small businesses by fostering more vibrant downtown business districts within walking distance of homes and transportation infrastructure. It would promote public health and cut transportation costs by making it easier for people to walk or bike around their communities. It would spur development inside towns and cities — creating jobs while protecting Maine’s natural lands.

Groups across Maine are already applying for the existing iterations of these grants, the Housing and Urban Development-Department of Transportation Community Challenge Grants and the TIGER II grants. Competition is fierce — the total amount available nationally for these grants is $75 million, and in the Chicago region alone more than 30 groups have applied. Maine applicants include the Northern Maine Development Corp. and a partnership between the Greater Portland Council of Governments and the Southern Maine Regional Planning Commission. The low level of funding makes success unlikely, but expanding the available funding pool for these grants would ensure that Maine’s communities will be able to access and benefit from them.

Furthermore, if implemented, the policies in the bill would strengthen the efforts to develop station areas on the Downeaster, and they would help the Maine Department of Transportation’s Gateway 1 project achieve its goals of building a corridor plan for Route 1 that promotes efficient transportation, economic development and high quality of life.

All four members of our congressional delegation have been supportive of sustainable development, and understand its importance in improving the lives of Maine people and building a prosperous economy. Hopefully, they will continue that leadership by supporting the Livable Communities Act.

Clifford Ginn is co-director of Opportunity Maine, a policy and advocacy organization promoting innovative investments in education, work force development, clean energy and other promising sectors of Maine’s economy.

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