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Cuomo Panel Approves Clean Water Funds for Highway Bridge Construction

Earlier today, the state Environmental Facilities Corporation unanimously approved a $511 million loan from the state’s federally-funded clean water program to the Tappan Zee Bridge construction project, using funds intended for clean water initiatives in New York City.

The state says this is an estuary protection project worthy of low-interest clean water funds. Image: Thruway Authority

In its press release, the board of Cuomo appointees said the loan, which will help the Thruway Authority save at least $17 million over three years, will go to pay for projects that mitigate the negative impact of the highway and “will help keep tolls on the new bridge as low as possible.”

The state says the highway qualifies for the loan — half of which is low-interest, the other half interest-free — because it is an estuary protection project that helps implement an EPA-approved estuary plan. The state claims the Tappan Zee project helps implement an estuary plan dating from 1996 focused on New York Harbor. While the bridge is just outside the plan’s core area, it does fall within its “watershed-based” boundaries.

Advocates aren’t buying it. According to their calculations, only $12.5 million of the $511 million loan would go to “genuine environmentally beneficial projects,” all of which the state agreed to as part of mitigation for the highway. In addition, the Tappan Zee environmental impact statement, completed two years ago, never mentions the estuary plan once. If the bridge project is related to protecting the estuary, why was that never mentioned before the state set out to get a clean water loan?

Robert Pirani is program director for the New York-New Jersey Harbor and Estuary Program, the EPA-funded initiative that created the 1996 plan. “They’re not projects that are discussed in the comprehensive management plan,” he said of the Tappan Zee loan.

Pirani noted that it’s up to the state to determine whether its own highway qualifies for the clean water loan. “There’s a lot of stuff we just don’t know,” he said. “They need to justify to themselves that this is an appropriate use of the funding.”

Advocates are also worried that the state could snap its fingers and turn this loan into funding with no expectation of repayment.

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EPA to Cuomo: Paying for a Highway With Clean Water Funds? Not So Fast

So where's the "highway" section of the clean water fund? Governor Cuomo thinks it's hidden under "estuary." Image: EPA

Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to use “estuary protection” money from New York State’s clean water fund to build an enormous highway over the Hudson. Image: EPA

Will anyone stop Governor Andrew Cuomo from using the state’s clean water program to pay for a big new highway bridge to replace the Tappan Zee?

The governor wants to take out a $511 million low-interest loan to cover part of the multi-billion dollar Tappan Zee replacement. A panel of Cuomo appointees is expected to green-light the maneuver at an 11:30 a.m. vote today, but state legislators and good government advocates are putting up a fight, saying the deal sets a dangerous precedent for a program intended for projects like wastewater treatment plants.

Yesterday, the regional office of the EPA got involved, saying it wants the state to answer more questions before taking federal clean water funds designated for New York City and using them to build the new Tappan Zee.

The New York League of Conservation Voters is asking New Yorkers to contact members of the panel before the vote to urge them not to sign off on the loan.

Cuomo’s bridge funding ploy reeks of political desperation. Early in his term he committed to the Tappan Zee project as a symbol of his ability to get things done, but there’s no way to pay for the mega-bridge he wants to build without either large toll hikes or fiscal shenanigans and sleight of hand.

The governor is now entering a reelection campaign against Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who is acutely aware of the Tappan Zee toll situation. Hence the current monkey business with the clean water fund.

So far, Cuomo has skirted the question of paying for the new Tappan Zee, delaying appointments to a promised toll and financing task force. While he has secured a $1.5 billion low-interest federal loan, the largest ever approved by U.S. DOT, he’ll need more cheap money to finance the $3.9 billion bridge. Cuomo is looking outside the Thruway Authority and its at-risk bond rating to better-rated state authorities that have lots of cash.

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Why Congress Can’t Kill the Partnership for Sustainable Communities

Let’s say you worked for a city that was trying to revitalize a piece of land with a bunch of dilapidated buildings on it. You want to build some residences and some retail space, and you want to make better connections to the street grid. Congratulations – HUD and U.S. DOT both have money to help you get where you’re going. Except, oops: HUD is going to demand that you hire locally, to create jobs in the community, while U.S. DOT is going to demand that you get a competitive bid, showing no preference for local hires. Everyone you talk to at either agency just scratches their heads and says they don’t know anything about the other agency. They wouldn’t even know who to talk to over there.

The Partnership for Sustainable Communities is helping Charleston, WV make its transit hub a vibrant, green town square. Image: EPA

Well, you can relax, because that type of bureaucratic snafu is a thing of the past. But that was the state of affairs until about three years ago, when DOT, HUD, and the EPA got together to eliminate some of the bureaucratic hurdles that had long frustrated the communities they were trying to serve. They called it the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, and it broke down the silos of the three agencies with their naturally interconnected missions. They outlined six principles of livability to support investment in existing communities, transportation choices, affordable housing, and good stuff like that.

House Republicans sprang into action. They succeeded in de-funding the program, even trying to insert legislative language that prohibits the three agencies from working together on sustainable development. (See page 78 of this PDF.)

But this partnership is broader and deeper than its antagonists think.

With or without a name or funding, government agencies are beginning to work together around a common mission of smart growth and livability. And not just the big three: The EPA has signed a formal memorandum of agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on sustainable land use in coastal areas, tackling questions like how to improve walkability when everything is built on stilts.

And other agencies are getting in on the action. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development office “wishes they’d been at the wedding,” according to Abby Hall, policy analyst with the EPA’s Smart Growth program. The USDA has worked with the Partnership on livability guidance for rural America. It runs its own infrastructure bank, which incorporates sustainability principles.

For example, while many small towns try to revitalize by chasing after big companies to build plants there, the Rural Development office encourages communities to build places where people want to live and conduct commerce. They just cut the ribbon on a new City Hall in southeastern Arkansas, consolidating four local agencies in a renovated historic building on what had been a somewhat moribund Main Street. The town’s mayor told officials that with the opening of the building, businesses and developers are suddenly interested in putting down roots there.

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Federal Support for Smart Planning Is on the Line Today

A Senate panel will vote today on two budget bills for FY2012, one of which is for transportation and housing programs. The draft of the bill isn’t available until after the subcommittee markup today, but Smart Growth America is calling attention to the fact that it’s important to make sure the bill includes funding for the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, the partnership between USDOT, the EPA, and HUD.

Normal, Illinois' multimodal transportation center, funded with a TIGER grant from the Partnership. Image: Normal, Illinois

Through the partnership, the three agencies have coordinated transportation and land use policy to a greater extent than they did before, helping to curb sprawl and promote smart growth. This partnership has taken the federal agencies out of their “stovepipe” mentality and encouraged efficiency and collaboration at an unprecedented level. Why would lawmakers who want to reduce inefficiencies and waste in the federal government want to cut a program that has been so effective at doing just that?

Last fall, Mariia Zimmerman from HUD told Streetsblog that the Partnership has standardized guidelines to make it easier to apply for grants and eliminated some areas of inefficiency, overlap, and even direct contradiction among the agencies. But perhaps more importantly, she said the Partnership has transformed all of HUD, incorporating a focus on sustainability in all of the agency’s work.

A vote of support from the Senate would mean a lot to the Partnership, which saw its funding stripped in the House proposal for next year’s budget. But the Partnership isn’t the only potential casualty of the House plan: Highway and transit funding each get slashed by 34 percent, TIGER and TIGGER grants are cut entirely, high-speed rail gets nothing, the New Starts transit program gets slashed, and Amtrak is left gasping for air. If the Senate subcommittee doesn’t vote to save funding for these programs tomorrow, they have no chance.

See the Smart Growth America action alert for more information.

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Polluters Rejoice! Obama Caves on Proposed Ozone Standard

This morning, President Obama announced that he would direct the EPA to back off of new ozone standards that would have saved an estimated 12,000 lives [PDF]. They’ll revisit it in 2013.

Get used to it.

Obama said the action was taken in the interest of “reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover,” but environmental groups slammed the decision as “a huge win for corporate polluters,” in the words of League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski.

NRDC President Frances Beinecke said, “The Clean Air Act clearly requires the Environmental Protection Agency to set protective standards against smog — based on science and the law. The White House now has polluted that process with politics.” Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said she was “disappointed” with the decision.

The decision has a major impact on efforts to reform transportation, NRDC’s Deron Lovaas told Streetsblog.

“It frankly makes our job harder, in terms of reducing pollution from mobile sources,” Lovaas said. “If they had set the standard closer to 60 parts per billion, as opposed to 80, regions and states would have to get really serious about transit, and really serious about smart growth, and really serious about reducing vehicle miles traveled, because the gains couldn’t all be made through better technology.”

Business interests had long lobbied against the tighter standards, and they expressed their pleasure at the president’s announcement. The Chamber of Commerce cheered the move, rationalizing that by waiting for the statutorily-required rule-making in 2013, the EPA “can base its decision on the most recent science, not 2006 science.”

According to the National Review, some Republicans had called the ozone requirements “the single most harmful regulation proposed by the administration” and estimated that the total cost of implementation would have been “at least $1 trillion over a decade and millions of jobs.” House Speaker John Boehner called Obama’s concession to polluters “a good first step” and said he was glad the White House “recognized the job-killing impact of this particular regulation.”

Did we mention it would have saved 12,000 lives?

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EPA: Energy Efficiency Is About Location, Location, Location

Where we live has an enormous impact on energy use, according to new research commissioned by the EPA. The report, “Location Efficiency and Housing Type — Boiling It Down to BTUs” finds that Americans use far less energy if they live in an apartment building in a transit-oriented neighborhood than if they live in a detached suburban house, even if that house has green building features and sports fuel-efficient cars in the driveway.

When it comes to this report, a picture’s worth a thousand words. As the graph above shows, the biggest energy efficiency gains come from living in transit-oriented neighborhoods.

A household living in a single family detached house located in a typical sprawl development uses an average of 240 million BTU (British Thermal Units, a unit of energy output) of energy a year, while the same household would only use 147 million BTU if the exact same house were located in a compact neighborhood. Make that single family house an apartment and energy use is down to 93 million BTU.

“While energy efficiency measures in homes and vehicles can make a notable improvement in consumption, the impact is considerably less dramatic than the gains possible offered by housing type and location efficiency,” the authors write. The ideal solution, of course, is to combine smart growth with green technology.

The report serves as a high-level rebuke to those who dismiss the importance of smart growth for curbing energy use, a point of view that was reinforced by a recent report from the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. While putting a stop to the country’s many sprawl-inducing policies may not be easy, the EPA’s numbers show it’s necessary.

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EPA Recognizes Small Towns and Big Cities For Smart Growth Efforts

When Don White was young, his dad would drive him from the Boston area to Blue Hill, Maine up coastal Route 1. “In those days,” he reminisces, “the road wound through little, small towns. And some of that has been bypassed.”

No wonder the residents of mid-coast Maine don't want traffic and sprawl to dilute this view, Image: ##http://outsideonline.com/outside/destinations/200810/fishing-rockland-maine.htm##Outside##

No wonder the residents of mid-coast Maine don't want traffic and sprawl to dilute this view. Image: Outside

The bypasses have been “hugely controversial, hugely disruptive, hugely expensive,” according to Kate Beaudoin, Chief of Planning for Maine DOT. She worked with local residents like White on a new corridor action plan to keep the small-town quality intact among the communities along Route 1.

It’s not just for nostalgia. Allowing Route 1 to be overwhelmed by traffic and sprawl would be detrimental to the tourism economy and the local culture. So a steering committee, made up of representatives from each of the 20 communities along a 100-mile stretch of the corridor, developed a plan to reduce traffic congestion.

The plan was recognized by the EPA yesterday as one of five winners of the agency’s annual awards for “Smart Growth Achievement.” It’s the first time the EPA has presented an award in the category of Rural Smart Growth.

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Without a Plan, Sprawl Will Continue to Hollow Out Cleveland Region

Photo: Angie Schmitt

Places like Woodlawn Avenue in East Cleveland are languishing while investment in the region flows to car-based exurbs. Photo: Angie Schmitt

If you want to get a sense of how devastating sprawl has been to the urban areas of northeast Ohio, head over to Woodlawn Avenue in East Cleveland. Between the rows of boarded up buildings, a house collapses onto itself. Graffiti pays homage to dead loved ones — “R.I.P. Fife.” Nearby, stuffed animals have been stapled to a telephone pole in a memorial, presumably, to a dead child.

Travel thirty miles west to Lorain County, and they’re laying sewer pipe for a new housing development. The housing market is strong in exurban Avon, where a new highway interchange has spurred a rush in commercial real estate development on what was once forests. Here residents can commute an easy 35 minutes by highway to downtown Cleveland, while avoiding the higher taxes that come with closer-set communities, burdened by old infrastructure and the cost of providing social services to less affluent residents.

It’s a pattern that can’t be reversed without the type of comprehensive planning that the Obama administration has encouraged through its Sustainable Communities Initiative, which would receive a substantial boost with the passage of the Livable Communities Act.

For decades, residents of greater Cleveland have been moving up and moving out. In fact, long ago, East Cleveland itself was founded by industrialists, including Nelson Rockefeller, who were seeking shelter from what they thought were exorbitant city tax rates.

But that’s not what makes this region a special example of the destructive impacts of laissez-faire development. Housing works this way in many, if not most, mid-sized American cities, with less disastrous results. The difference in metro Cleveland is that, roughly since the 1970s, the regional population has been stagnant. That means, in essence, for every house built in Avon, a house in East Cleveland — or the city of Cleveland, or, increasingly, one of the inner-ring suburbs — is abandoned.

The result has been devastating for the central city and the smaller residential communities that encircle it.

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Livable Communities Act Clears Senate Committee

The Senate Banking Committee voted 12-10 yesterday in favor of the Livable Communities Act, legislation that would bolster the Obama administration's initiatives to link together transportation, housing, economic development, and environmental policy.

donovan_lahood_jackson.jpgDonovan, LaHood, Jackson: Together forever? The Livable Communities Act would codify the partnership between HUD, US DOT, and the EPA. Photo: EPA
The administration has been taking steps since last March to coordinate between the Department of Transportation, HUD, and the EPA. This bill, carried in the Senate by Connecticut's Chris Dodd, would formalize those partnerships and authorize substantially more funding to work with. 

Most of the action would flow through HUD. This year the agency is funding $150 million in grants supporting regional efforts to improve access to transit and promote walkable development. The Livable Communities Act promises to scale up that program significantly, creating a new office within HUD, called the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, that will distribute about $4 billion through competitive grants.

The initial round of grants would fund comprehensive plans -- local initiatives to shape growth by coordinating housing, transportation, and economic development policies. Most of the funding -- $3.75 billion -- would be distributed over three years to implement projects identified in such plans.

While some Senators from rural states had expressed skepticism about the benefits of the bill for their constituents, yesterday's vote split strictly along party lines, with Democrats Jon Tester of Montana and Tim Johnson of South Dakota both voting in favor.

To make the case for the bill to his rural and Republican counterparts, Dodd singled out Envision Utah, a campaign that has built public support for smart growth policies in one of the country's reddest states. Not a single GOP Senator voted for the bill, however, even Utah's Bob Bennett, who told UPI, "I think the overall philosophy is wise, but I will be voting against it."

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In the Works: Senate Bill to Promote Sustainable Development

In Washington politics, the term "kumbaya moment" is used to describe those rare occasions when self-interested stakeholders join hands to support a set of reforms. And today's appearance before the Senate Banking Committee by the chiefs of three Cabinet departments -- Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency -- definitely qualified for kumbaya status.

dodd_working.jpgSenate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT). Photo: The Washington Note

The first bit of news that emerged from the Senate hearing was the EPA's inclusion in the Sustainable Communities project that DOT and HUD announced in March. Yet a potentially bigger gesture of unity came from Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), the Banking panel's chairman, who is planning legislation that would put some teeth behind the three agencies' goals.

Dodd said his forthcoming bill would create a competitive grant program to "provide incentives for regions to plan future growth in a coordinated way that reduces congestion, generates good-paying jobs, meets our environmental and energy goals, protects rural areas and green space, revitalizes our Main Streets and urban centers, creates and preserves affordable housing, and makes our communities better places to live, work, and raise families."

That's quite the mouthful. But it also suggests that even as Congress' jam-packed schedule pushes the prospects for a federal transportation bill past the September 30 deadline, senior lawmakers are committed to helping the Obama administration make good on its promises to encourage transit-oriented development and environmentally friendly land use practices.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson even used a scientific metaphor to describe the agencies' goals. "Pedestrians are a good indicator species for a healthy community," she told senators today. "We're all about building a healthy community of pedestrians."

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