A National Housing-Transportation Attack on Federalism?

Heritage Foundation economist Ron Utt has an insightful essay on the Obama Administration’s initiative to create a “partnership” between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to help create “sustainable communities.” Ron’s essay should be “must reading” for those interested in Federalism and free market approaches to urban policy.

The new partnership will in essence create an axis (my word) of Smart Growth policy that will attempt to re-engineer the urban landscape to achieve higher densities and more transit ridership. Of course, HUD and DOT don’t put it this way. Their press release is pretty inocuous, saying the purpose of the partnership is to:

help American families gain better access to affordable housing, more transportation options, and lower transportation costs. The average working American family spends nearly 60 percent of its budget on housing and transportation costs, making these two areas the largest expenses for American families. [HUD Secretary] Donovan and [DOT Secretary] LaHood want to seek ways to cut these costs by focusing their efforts on creating affordable, sustainable communities.

Ron is appropriately skeptical in his Backgrounder titled: “President Obama’s New Plan to Decide Where Americans Live and How They Travel.” This initiative, the the “high level task force” the secretaries created, is really a thinly disguised federal attack on single family detached housing and automobile use. In other words, it’s federal anti-sprawl policy, Obama style. Observes Ron,

Recognizing that their anti-growth strategies have failed to deter the millions of American families that still flock to the burbs, Smart Growth advocates have now enlisted the federal government in their war against the suburbs, and the HUD-DOT part­nership is the beginning of that effort. Although there is no shortage of detailed information from many sources (including HUD) on housing costs for every state, metropolitan area, and municipality in America, Smart Growth advocates contend that these readily available data are incorrect because they overlook the many “hidden costs” of suburban lifestyles, an assertion that relies on unsubstantiated allegations of greater infrastructure costs, environ­mental degradation, and the high cost of auto­mobile operation.

To save Americans from these alleged higher liv­ing costs, the Smart Growth and New Urbanist movements want Americans to move into higher-density developments–such as townhouses and high-rise apartment buildings–which, the anti-suburbanists contend, can be better served by pub­lic transportation (hence the commitment to “trans­portation choice,” a process whereby commuters are bribed or coerced into an inconvenient mode of transportation that most would not choose on their own)–thereby freeing the hapless American people from relying on their automobiles. Other key bene­fits illuminated in this fable are the preservation of land, reduced carbon footprints, greater social interaction through forced proximity, and a higher aesthetic standard in community and housing design as government planners and politicians assume greater responsibility for artistic choices.

A more troubling aspect of this policy, in my view, is what it likely says about Federalism–the Constitutional principal of separation of powers and responsibilities between state and federal governments. Transportation–even highway planning and spending decisions–housing, and land use policy are traditionally the perview of state governments. Cities, in fact, are creatures of state government.

The new housing-transportation “partnership” program, however, signals a renewed effort to circumvent state governments and undermine local autonomy by strong arming county, regional, and local governments into planning to achieve federal goals. As Ron notes, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did this to Atlanta under the guise of meeting air quality goals in the late 1990s. The new federal policies will be implemented through funding incentives, but this is little more than a technical legal dodge around very narrow interpretations of Federalism. Policymakers in HUD, DOT, EPA, and the White House know full well that local governments can’t resist the lure of federal dollars. That’s how we got 55 mph speed limits among other things. The incentives accept federal goals and targest for cities and transportation policy will be especially strong now that state and local governments are cash strapped as revenues fall during the recession.

The press release says a key goal of a newly created HUD/DOT task force will be to link transportation, housing, and land use policy so “every major metropolitan area in the country conduct integrated housing, transportation, and land use planning and investment in the next four years.”

This effort is intended to help metropolitan areas set a vision for growth and apply federal transportation, housing and other investments in an integrated approach to support that vision. HUD currently requires states, cities, and counties to prepare a five-year Consolidated Plan estimating housing status and needs. Concurrently, DOT requires States and metropolitan areas to develop Long Range Transportation Plans and four-year Transportation Improvement Programs. Coordinating these federally mandated planning efforts, including planning cycles, processes and geographic coverage, will make more effective use of Federal housing and transportation dollars.

We’ve seen this before with Model Cities, public housing subsidies, metropoltian planning organizations, regional housing authorities, the Interstate Highway Program, and other conscious blurrings of state and local government responsibiltiies. This is another step in the direction of erasing meaningful distinctions and eventually moving toward a unifed and integrated national government approach to transportation, housing, and land use planning.