Where we live and how we get around are inextricably linked. But until recently, the federal government separated housing and transportation policy into completely separate silos. Federal transportation dollars can only be used for building highways or (to a much lesser extent) transit systems. Federal housing dollars largely go to supporting homeownership, and sprawl, with a smaller amount used to subsidize renting for lower-income families.
This is exactly the wrong approach if we want to build sustainable communities. We need to design our housing and transportation systems in tandem. Transit stations should be surrounded by dense clusters of housing, shopping, and offices. This is the kind of walkable, transit-accessible urbanism that millennials want.
The Obama administration has started to break down the silos. It has aligned some investments in housing and transportation through its Partnership for Sustainable Communities. But the vast majority of federal transportation dollars are still simply handed out to states via formulas and spent on highways and other roads. The Sustainable Communities efforts have involved just a tiny fraction of all transportation and housing spending, and it became even tinier after Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in 2010.
Developing transit-oriented housing requires infrastructure investments: sidewalks have to be built or widened, traffic-calming measures like median strips may be needed, bike lanes may be created and street lamps installed. Federal transportation money currently can’t be used for any of that, even while it can be used to build a road to nowhere.
“In a lot of cases, local government wants the opportunity to develop, improve their tax base, build more housing, but they may not have money to put in the new infrastructure,” says David Goldberg, spokesperson for Transportation for America. “They might sometimes require the developer to do it, and the developer may be able to get financing for apartments or retail, but public infrastructure may be an additional cost they cannot wrap into their financing.”
Now a group of senators have proposed another way to help build communities where you don’t need a car to get everywhere. Earlier this month, Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Ed Markey (Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) introduced the Transit-Oriented Development Infrastructure Financing Act, which would make federal loans or loan guarantees available for transit-oriented development.