July 20, 2009
Nine major public transit positions available in this week's classified ads!
An Overdue Breakout from ‘Silos,’ Borders
BY NEAL PEIRCE
WASHINGTON—For at least a half century, “silos” and borders have been tripping up effective governance in America.
The silos loom highest at the federal level, where huge departments from Transportation to Commerce to Labor rarely speak and almost never work together.
Borders proliferate closer to home, dividing our metro areas into hundreds of economically linked but separately governed cities and suburbs.
And borders, as state lines, plunge straight through such mega citistate regions as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis.
But the Obama era is bringing glimmers of hope for change.
This spring, the president’s transportation and housing secretaries—Ray LaHood and Shaun Donovan—made a public pledge to collaborate in joint field work of their departments. On June 16, the new Environmental Protection Agency chief, Lisa Jackson, joined in under the banner of advancing more “livable,” sustainable American communities. In the near future, it’s likely that Energy Secretary Steven Chu will also align his department with the alliance.
The principles the group has enumerated are amazingly broad.
Transportation choices are to go far beyond roadways, with a likely focus on transit to reduce foreign oil dependence, improve air quality and cut back greenhouse gas emissions. Government-assisted housing will be located near workplaces and/or transit stops to increase economic competitiveness and let hard-pressed families reduce high combined shelter and commuting costs. In lieu of sprawl subsidies, government assistance will be targeted toward support of existing neighborhoods and communities.
“These principles mean that we will all be working off the same playbook to formulate and implement policies and programs,” Donovan said. “For the first time, the federal government will speak with one voice on housing, environmental, and transportation policy.”
The most amazing statements come from LaHood, the former Republican congressman that Obama recruited to head the Department of Transportation.
For 50 years, LaHood confesses, federal transportation outlays have heavily favored scattered road development that requires autos for most trips, even very short ones, undercutting transit and mixed-use communities. Another result, he notes: auto congestion—an $80 billion annual drain on the American economy also imperiling the quality of life in many communities.
LaHood is enthusiastically backing the idea of “livable communities,” including “complete streets” that encourage mobility for all users—“whether they are children walking or biking to school or commuters riding transit or driving motor vehicles.”
What explains this tectonic shift in federal approaches? The obvious answer: Obama’s personal belief in community-sensitive design and planning, born of his Chicago experience.
But it’s now turning out that Obama not only appointed progressive department heads with new missions, he also is staffing those agencies with appointees who started to implement the new gospel in their previous state and local government jobs. Lead examples are HUD Deputy Secretary Ron Sims (former King County, WA, executive and early climate change evangelist), DOT Undersecretary for Policy Roy Kienitz (former Maryland planning director and later chief aide to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell) and the EPA’s John Frece (a smart growth leader in the Maryland administration of then-Gov. Parris Glendening).
Their big collective challenge—to turn around large, entrenched, separate bureaucracies, making sure the collaboration celebrated in Washington gets reflected in actual field operations.
But even if silos are made less formidable, what of the thousands of borders that divide communities in our metro regions? Won’t smart growth, “livability” agendas run a cropper if new transportation, housing, environmental initiatives are splintered into thousands of small government pieces?
The new White House Office of Urban Affairs has yet to follow up on the metrowide focus for federal initiatives that the Brookings Institution and others have advocated and Obama explicitly endorsed in his presidential campaign.
But the administration is known to be mulling one lead idea: challenging governments and civic leaders across regions to come up with their own ideas for joined-up transportation, energy, housing, and environmental projects. Federal departments could then negotiate the details and help fund proposals with the most impact for sustainability and livable communities.
Metro regions, says Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, new president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, are such critical linchpins of the national economy that they need direct relationships with the federal government to bolster their livability and global competitiveness.
Nickels and Tom Cochran, the Mayors Conference’s veteran executive director, favor going outside center city boundaries to create political alliances with executives of the large suburban counties. It’s time, says Cochran, “to form a political operation to demand” more effective federal response to the needs of entire metropolitan areas.
There’ll be plenty of political and bureaucratic obstacles to combined city-suburb approaches.
But a new politics, based on the metro economic reality and the country’s huge new energy, climate, transportation and housing needs, is clearly coming into focus. Silos and borders—they won’t go away soon.
But they may be in for a long-overdue challenge.
Neal Peirce’s e-mail address is email@example.com
Copyright 2009 The Washington Post Writers Group