Vanishing Automobile Update #23

Department of Transportation Funds Smart-Growth Groups

The US Department of Transportation gives millions of dollars in grants each year to promote smart growth in American cities. Although these grants are mostly given to government agencies, a large share of this money -- perhaps several million dollars per year -- finds its way into the hands of smart-growth advocacy groups that use the funds to lobby or "educate" the public in support of smart-growth policies.

The funds are given out under section 1221 of the 1998 transportation authorization act (TEA-21), in which Congress told the US Department of Transportation to give $120 million through 2003 to states and communities for "Transportation, Community, and System Preservation" (TCSP) pilot projects.

As noted on p. 209 of The Vanishing Auto, this section of the law was authored by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden in the hope of funding more smart-growth studies such as the LUTRAQ (Land Use-Transportation-Air Quality) study done by 1000 Friends of Oregon (see p. 165 of The Vanishing Auto for information about LUTRAQ). One feature of this law is that the government agencies getting the funds are encouraged to share them with "non-traditional partners," meaning non-profit advocacy groups such as a 1000 friends or other smart-growth group.

The TCSP program skews planning toward smart growth in several ways:

Just the fact that the federal government gives millions of dollars for smart-growth planning swayed other local governments to get grants and plan for smart growth in their areas without actually sharing funds with non-profit advocates of smart growth.

Unfortunately, unlike EPA grants, it is difficult to calculate exactly how much money is finding its way into the hands of advocacy groups. EPA gives some of its grants directly to non-profit groups, making it easy to get information about such grants. Because TCSP funds are given to state and local governments, which may or may not share them with non-profits, data are more difficult to obtain. Some information can be gathered from the following US DOT web pages:

In 1999 DOT gave out about $14 million in TCSP funds. This increased to $31 million in 2000 and $47 million in 2001. Since full proposals are posted only for 1999 grants, most of the following analysis is about those grants.

In 1999 DOT gave thirty-five TCSP grants totalling $14.2 million. Of these, about thirty-two grants of $13.4 million can be identified as being for smart growth. Here I am defining smart growth to include projects emphasizing transit, bikes/pedestrians, or high-density or mixed-use developments. I also included a couple that emphasize the "transportation land-use connection" even if they didn't emphasize non-highway modes of travel.

Judging from the full proposals posted for twenty-one of the 1999 grants, more than three-quarters of these grants specifically include "non-traditional partners," meaning non-governmental groups. If we ignore universities, consulting firms (often included to assist with public involvement), and quasi-governmental councils, fifteen of the twenty-one projects still include non-profits such as the Sierra Club.

Most of the proposals mention these non-profits by name. Sometimes the groups will be on a steering committee and do not seem to get any funds. But many of the proposals clearly intend to give some or all of the funds to these groups.

Here are the best documented examples.

In Salt Lake City, the Coalition for Utah's Future is the lead group doing Envision Utah, which received $425,000. Although the governor's office is technically the grant recipient, all of the money probably went to this smart-growth advocacy group. Envision Utah received another $205,000 in 2000. Ironically, one of the other funded proposals (see Ada Planning Association below) calls Envision Utah a "top-down planning program."

The Ada Planning Association is the "fiscal agent" and one of the two "primary leaders" for a $510,000 grant to promote smart growth in Boise, Idaho. While this is the grant that says it will not do "top down" planning as was done by Envision Utah, one of its primary objectives is to "overcome the major barriers currently impeding compact development."

In Centre County, Pennsylvania, a non-profit called the ClearWater Conservancy is the lead group in a $750,000 project to plan high-density uses around a new interstate highway. The Centre County Planning Office is technically the grant recipient, but the Conservancy got most if not all of the money. I looked up the ClearWater Conservancy on the web, but it has not yet posted anything relating to this project (the web page says "coming soon"). So it is hard to tell just what their orientation on transportation is.

In Oregon, the Lane Council of Governments received $600,000 for the Willamette Valley Livability Project. Most of this money was spent distributing a 16-page, anti-road, smart-growth propaganda pamphlet to 450,000 Oregon households. The pamphlet was written by 1000 Friends of Oregon and its allies. See for more about this publication.

In Seattle, the local MPO received $400,000 to promote transit-oriented development. The proposal says that the MPO "will contract with 1000 Friends of Washington" to do radio ads, community forums, and community profiles. It isn't clear how much 1000 Friends will get.

In Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council shared in a $665,000 grant that aimed to "sow the seeds of public support for transit-oriented developments" (TODs). The grant explicitly described the Environmental Council as a "smart growth" organization and stated that it would use its share of funds for "TOD advocacy."

Bluegrass Tomorrow is described as a "smart growth advocacy group" that plays a major role in a $525,000 grant to promote smart growth in Frankfort, Kentucky. At first the proposal's innocuous terms and the claim that Toyota and Valvoline both support Bluegrass Tomorrow made me wonder if this "smart growth" was more like quality growth. But I looked at the Bluegrass Tomorrow web site,, and it is just the same old smart growth.

In Gainesville, Florida, a smart-growth group called Sustainable Alachua County (SAC) "will play a significant role" in a $150,000 project to promote smart growth. This group has been active in local transportation planning and the project gives it an official inside-track into the planning process. While the group probably does not get any money out of the grant, it gets to play a major role in designing the local transportation plan. As the grant proposal says,

SAC will serve as a sounding board for citizen input into the application of the sketch planning methods. The technical team members will identify and evaluate the various factors to determine significance, and then bring those factors to SAC for them to choose which should be measured and the applied in the planning process.

One of SAC's roles in this grant will be to provide in-kind services as part of the project team. Such services will include performing quantitative assessments of the quality of the urban environment, such as measuring transit and pedestrian friendliness factors in sample traffic analysis zones of the community. For example, SAC Focus Team members will be used to measure building setbacks and ease of crossing the street in various locations that exhibit different development characteristics. These measurements will help form the basis for the development of the sketch planning methods to post-process model outputs.

In many of these cases, it is apparent that the local governments are using the non-profit groups to do advocacy work that government agencies are not allowed to do. Government agencies are supposed to be politically neutral, and are generally not supposed to lobby or propagandize in favor of their specific agendas. By sharing grants with non-profit advocacy groups, these agencies can get around such limits and use public funds to persuade people to support policies that are not in the public's best interest.

In several other cases, grants may not give smart-growth groups any funds but do give them an inside track into regional planning. For example, Laurel, Montana, is a town of 7,000 people in a thinly populated state that you wouldn't think needs smart growth. Yet an $85,000 grant to the city of Laurel lists the following as members of its advisory committee:

John Williams is a bicycle advocate who is also associated with the group called "Walkable Communities," which probably got some funding from this grant. Carter-Burgess is an consulting firm that does environmental design and "visioning" that also probably got funding from this grant. With the possible exception of Barron Parks, most of the others are also probably strong smart-growth advocates. This makes a pretty one-sided advisory committee.

Four other examples include:

These types of grants are disturbing not because they fund one political view but because they give that view an inside track to planning. No mention is made of pro-highway or pro-homeowner groups in these grants.

A few grants appear superficially more balanced. A $275,000 grant to Johnson City, TN, lists the Sierra Club and the local homebuilders association as being on a steering committee to coordinate land-use and transportation planning. The Sierra Club and some local conservation groups are listed in a $450,000 grant to promote smart growth in Raleigh-Durham, but so are local chambers of commerce. Still, both grants emphasize smart-growth policies.

Six grants are clearly oriented to smart growth but do not seem to give any funds or preference to smart-growth non-profit groups. These include:

The US DOT web site posts only an abstract, not a complete proposal, for fourteen of the 1999 grants and most of the 2000 grants. The abstracts usually make it clear that the grants will promote smart growth but are not complete enough to mention whether any non-profit partners are involved.

Grants given in 1999 for which we have only the abstract include:

I tentatively classify all of these as smart-growth projects except the Lee Vining, CA; Troy, NY; Dayton, OH; and Martinsburg, WV grants. The abstracts rarely mention partners and if they do they are never named. More information about these grants might be available on the web sites of the grant recipients, but I haven't looked.

Partners are a part of every TCSP grant, if only because "Partnerships" is part V of the formal grant application. While this doesn't necessarily mean that the partners will be non-profits biased to smart growth, the fact that most of the planners submitting the grant requests are biased to smart growth certainly makes this likely. A few grants, such as a $177,000 grant to promote transit-oriented development in San Francisco, list only government agencies as partners. But these are in the minority.

In sum, of twenty-one full 1999 proposals that I have reviewed, non-profit smart-growth advocacy groups:

Six other grants were biased to smart growth but do not seem to share funds or power with smart-growth groups. Another ten grants are strongly biased to smart growth, but all we have are the abstracts for those grants so we don't know who their partners are. Only four of the thirty-five 1999 grants do not seem to be about promoting smart growth, but without the complete proposals for these grants we can't tell for certain.

All of these grants were given by the Clinton administration, but there is no evidence that the Bush administration is doing anything different this year. The Secretary of Transportation is the administration's token Democrat and a strong supporter of light rail who has promised smart-growth groups that he will continue the previous administration's policy of supporting smart growth.

It is not surprising that TCSP is biased towards smart growth, since that was the program's original purpose. But auto drivers should be outraged that Congress dedicates their gas taxes to groups whose aim is to increase congestion and discourage auto driving. American Dream supporters should work to eliminate TCSP from the next transportation authorization bill.

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