What the GROW AMERICA Act would mean for smart growth and community development

Yesterday the Obama Administration sent Congress its proposal for a four-year federal transportation bill—the GROW AMERICA Act. The current bill, MAP-21, is set to expire at the end of September, and the new bill has implications for highway and rail construction as well as economic development programs like TIGER grants. How would these proposals impact community development and smart growth?

The good news
The bill includes several promising policies for smart growth advocates.

First and foremost, it would require cities and states to consider all modes of travel when designing federally funded roads, provisions very similar to those proposed in the Safe Streets Act. This strategy gets the most out of federally funded projects, makes sure a given project best meets a community’s needs, and supports neighborhoods with a wide range of transportation choices—all things that Smart Growth America supports.

The bill combines funding for highways and transit into a single trust fund. This creates a permanent source of funding for public transportation and freight rail projects, which until now have relied on general funds. A permanent funding source would protect public transportation projects from potential cuts in the annual appropriations process.

The bill would also authorize two competitive grant programs designed to encourage innovative transportation projects. The first, the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program, supports projects with economic development potential and the GROW AMERICA Act would more than double funding for this widely successful program. The other, the Fixing and Accelerating Surface Transportation (FAST) program would incentivize the adoption of bold, innovative transportation strategies and best practices. Both programs would help communities address regional challenges through creative transportation strategies.

The bill would improve the Transportation Infrastructure Financing Act of 1998 (TIFIA), a low-cost federal loan program designed to help finance public infrastructure near transit. The bill would clarify some of TIFIA’s terms, make the program more useful for smaller projects and allow the program to increase administrative staffing. Programs like TIFIA make it easier to build development near transit, an initiative Smart Growth America strongly supports.

The bill would allow states to use federal funds for State Infrastructure Bank (SIB) programs. SIBs are innovative financing programs that allow states to leverage private capital, break down silos and connect all modes of transportation.

The bill would also create a new discretionary capital investment program, the Rapid Growth Area Transit Program, to address the emerging transportation needs of rapidly growing urbanized or rural areas. The program would support bus rapid transit and transit-oriented development while also giving people in these areas better transportation choices. Smart Growth America supports investment in these communities.

The bill also includes several provisions to improve communications between federal agencies and with state governments. Smart growth development often takes close collaboration between transportation, housing, urban development and environmental agencies at both the state and federal level. Improving communications between these entities gets more out of public investments and yields better projects at the same time.

The bad news
The bill does not include a specific proposal to fix the nation’s transportation funding shortfall. The Highway Trust Fund—which funds many transportation projects across the country—is projected to go bankrupt as early as this summer. And if that happens, most states and dozens of metropolitan areas will lose the majority of the money they need to maintain and improve their transportation networks.

The End of the Road? The Looming Fiscal Disaster for Transportation, a new report out today from Smart Growth America’s Transportation for America campaign, explores this issue in more detail. The report shows the dollar amounts each state and metro region will be forced to forego if Congress does not act to avert the insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund. The fallout from such inaction would be disastrous for communities across the country.

Tell Congress to improve the federal transportation bill: Ask your members to find a stable source of income for all modes of transportation.

It’s time to GROW AMERICA—ask Congress to fund these programs. Obama’s new proposal makes now a perfect time to ask Congress to take action.

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