In June, Congressman James Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, introduced a 775-page bill - the Surface Transportation Authorization Act (STAA) - which would reauthorize the federal highway and transit programs that expired on September 30 for another six years.
Now there are a number of things that Oberstar's STAA would do. Shift resources away from freeways and to public transportation being one of them. Centralizing all transportation decisions in Washington would be another. But here is the kicker, and something anyone familiar with SB 375 will recognize immediately:
As written, many provisions of STAA have two primary purposes: 1) Deterring the use of automobiles; and 2) Forcing residential and commercial development into higher density urban communities where public transit, walking, and bicycling would be the main form of transportation.
So how would this forced return to the urban core tenement towns of 80 years ago be accomplished? Well, there is already a federally-funded apparatus in place called regional planning councils. And amongst them we can include organizations like SCAG. Which, if this federal legislation should become law, would empower the SCAGs of this country beyond their wildest dreams. Think of the bold new RHNA requirements they could cook up for us with Uncle Sugar covering their backs.
To do this, Oberstar's bill would encourage and require states and metropolitan planning organizations to use new land use regulations that would lead to much higher densities than Americans now prefer.
And who would these metropolitan planning organizations (like SCAG) be answering to in this quest to chase Americans into newly developed urban cores and crowded public transportation? Would you believe that there is an organization called the National Association of Regional Councils, or, you got it, NARC? Another unfortunate acronym rears its ugly head. But think of the career ladder! From COG, to SCAG, to NARC. Joe Mosca's dream made real.
But I digress. Ronald Utt goes on to make this important point:
One of the principal reasons given for the need to enact these bills relates to greenhouse gases and the environment. But evidence on fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions as they relate to different modes of travel and land use patterns reveal that the provisions of STAA would yield little or no benefit to the nation or the environment. Instead, both would impose great costs and inconveniences on American citizens and business.
Among the articles Utt cites as support for his claims here was published in the MIT Technology Review. Entitled "Forget Curbing Suburban Sprawl: Building Denser Cities Would Do Little to Reduce CO2 Emissions," its author, Phil McKenna, spells it all out:
Urban planners hoping to mitigate CO2 emissions by increasing housing density would do better to focus on fuel-efficiency improvements to vehicles, investments in renewable energy, and cap and trade legislation now being voted on in Congress, according to the (National Academy of Sciences et al) study released Tuesday. It concludes that increasing population density in metropolitan areas would yield insignificant CO2 reductions ... Even if 75 percent of all new and replacement housing in America were built at twice the density of new current developments, and those living in the newly constructed housing drove 25 percent less as a result, CO2 emissions from personal travel would decline nationwide by only 8 to 11 percent by 2050, according to the study. If just 25 percent of housing units were developed at such densities and residents drove only 12 percent less as a result, CO2 emissions would be reduced by less than 2 percent.
Of course, McKenna could be making a mistake here. He probably thinks cool and reasonable science is enough to win the day. But if those serving in the House of Representatives are anything like the cast of characters fattening up in our state legislature, they couldn't care less about the science involved here. Their true priority here would be paying off national realty and building associations and their lobbyists with some highly profitable mass urban core building opportunities. Backed up with generous allotments of federal money, of course.
Utt makes one more point that deserves some airing out. Apparently this sort of thing has been tried before, and the results were not very good.
Diminished Quality of Life - In enacting this or similar legislation, the U.S. would be following the sorry land use and development policies that the United Kingdom embraced in 1947 when it enacted the Town and Country Planning Act. Designed to preserve the rustic nature and charm of Britain's countryside, the act empowered the national government to create laws and regulations to concentrate most housing and commercial development into existing urban centers. As a consequence, the U.K. now has the smallest and most expensive homes of any advanced country.
That the federal government could now be engaged in creating laws designed to, in Utt's words, "substantially alter lifestyles by creating regulations, subsidies, and penalties to crowd development, create higher population densities, and compel people onto public transit," is kind of disturbing. Disturbing in that if all this somehow becomes law it would represent the largest instance of direct central government control over the private behavior of citizens ever in this country.
So it now looks like Sacramento's war against the planning rights of small cities could soon be going national. And if so it could be one of the largest power grabs by the federal government ever. Something that I am sure would be as much a cause for celebration down on K Street as it was in the offices of the BIA and CAR here in California when SB 375 passed.