Livable Centers Initiative Grant Program Needs to be Refocused

The Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) by the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) is intended to promote urban regeneration in metro Atlanta communities. But the projects it has funded have had little success in creating any sustained new economic activity. Moreover, the program is supported by federal gas taxes that are supposed to be dedicated to national highways. Nonetheless, other cities around the country, from Albany to San Francisco are using it as a model. If ARC wants to continue with the LCI program, and if other cities want to follow the model, two simple rules should be followed: first, it should be funded locally; second, it should focus on activities that have been shown to actually underpin economic development, such as the construction and maintenance of roads —especially if it is funded by gas taxes.

When the LCI program helps cities build appropriate infrastructure, it has the potential to be a useful tool. Planning for future growth can create higher-quality developments at lower costs. Some of the grants have supported transportation improvements. The city of Marietta and Cobb County received a grant to study bus rapid transit (BRT) in the Delk Road area. The city of Alpharetta used an LCI grant to study transit possibilities in the Northpoint Activity Center. Typically LCI grants are modest, between $80,000 and $150,000. In some cases, part of the cost of studies has been funded by private businesses, thereby leveraging the public funds.

However, there are numerous problems with the LCI program.

First, LCIs use federal gas tax funds to support local projects. Funding for this program comes specifically from the L-230 funds in the highway section of the state’s transportation bill, not the transit section or the intermodal section. Highway funding is intended to support national highways that facilitate interstate commerce by moving goods and people along roads such as I-75 and GA 400. Yet LCI grants have been used to support non-highway-oriented projects such as the development of Cycle Atlanta on the premise that it would connect job centers and residential areas by bike lanes. Another LCI grant is slated to enhance the Marietta University District which focuses on land usage, and not highway infrastructure, along U.S. 41.

More generally, non-motorized transport receives most of the resources from LCI grants. As of March 2011, $97,631,660 supported pedestrian facilities. Another $44,934,471 supported combined bicycling and pedestrian facilities. Only $15,438,929 supported roadway operations; $9,221,900 supported transit facilities, and $9,020,229 supported multi-use trails and other facilities. Sidewalks and bike paths do not facilitate much interstate commerce. Moreover, the transportation elements of these projects are regional at best.

The full commentary is available here.