Transportation funds should reward cities that do the most to plan and deliver sustainable and equitable development near transit. The "Strategic Investments for a Better Bay Area" platform, which TransForm developed along with dozens of other groups to set recommendations for the Sustainable Communities Strategy, suggests that the region support focused growth by creating a block grant program for Priority Development Areas (see objective 5).
Now, MTC staff has recently released their first draft of such a block grant -- the One Bay Area Grant program. It is a step in the right direction.
As described in the July 8 joint MTC/ABAG meeting, staff's proposal is just the beginning of a many-month process to develop a final block grant program. That's good, because there are a lot of ways this program can get better.
1) This is such a good idea, we want more of it. MTC staff is thinking too small, looking only at a program that uses the next cycle of federal discretionary funds. There are billions of dollars in other discretionary funds that MTC will be considering in the investment tradeoffs for the RTP. In the last RTP, MTC allocated $7 billion in discretionary money just to maintaining our local streets and roads. All of that, and more, could be part of this block grant program. MTC staff should come back to the Commission with additional options for revenue sources that could be used for this block grant -- both funds that could be combined with the next cycle of federal STP/CMAQ funds and plans for expanding the program using additional discretionary funds.
2) Protect the gains we've already made. The proposed block grant would use discretionary funds that previously were separated into several individual programs: maintain local streets and roads, invest in transportation for livable communities, build a regional bicycle network, regional planning, and a Climate Initiative to launch innovative ways to reduce driving and expand Safe Routes to Schools programs. This block grant would be one larger program to reward cities that grow in the right ways.
Staff has said that the block grant funds would be required to be used in ways that match the eligibility of those original programs. But there's nothing in the proposal's text that explains how that linkage would be made. And the administration would be entirely left up to the county congestion management agencies. The proposal should specify how the program will ensure funds are used to further the purposes of the Transportation for Livable Communities, Regional Bike Network, and the Climate Initiative.
3) Keep up the focus on performance and accountability. There are three key points to this that we hope stay in the final proposal:
- Keep the requirement that 70% of the funds should be used within Priority Development Areas (PDAs), the transit-rich places where cities and the region have said we want growth to happen. There will be technical details that need to get worked out, but the block grant must improve conditions in these PDAs, not just backfill city budgets.
- Keep the provision, in the formula for how money is distributed, that 25% of the funds are based on the actual development of new homes, not just on plans or changes in population. As the block grant evolves, it may make sense to increase that percentage.
- Keep the requirements that cities have supportive transportation and land use policies (on parking, displacement, bike-ped plans, complete streets, and risk reduction) and that recipients must have an approved Housing Element. Having and implementing these policies are crucial to create complete communities. If anything, the requirements should be stronger.
There are many more discussions to come before MTC plans to adopt the block grant program in March 2012. See Greenbelt Alliance's blog for more opinion on the block grant program, including about a small land conservation grant program that may be adopted along with the block grant.
Stay tuned and get involved to support the "Strategic Investments" platform for the Sustinable Communities Strategy.