Federal Carrots Get States, Cities, and Agencies Moving to Greater Regionalism

Oh, what a little federal incentive money will do!

This summer, approximately 900 regions and municipalities put themselves through a rigorous process to apply for $150 million in planning grants designed to increase regional and local capacity to create more livable communities.

Under a partnership of the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency, the majority of the funding, $100 million, will be awarded under the Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant Program. The remainder will be awarded under a companion program, Community Challenge Planning Grants, to help municipalities achieve affordable, economically vital, and sustainable communities.

For this relatively modest sum, Washington hopes to invigorate partnerships that cross city, county, and state boundaries and break down the silos that separate housing, transportation, economic development, and environmental planning.

Judging from the response that the program has generated thus far, it just might succeed.

In the Tri-state metropolitan region alone, applications were submitted from three regional consortiums — one from the mid-Hudson Valley, one from northern New Jersey, and one representing New York and Connecticut — along with several applications for Community Challenge grants. Regional Plan Association helped convene the New York-Connecticut Sustainable Communities Consortium, a collaboration of nine cities, two counties, and six regional planning organizations in an area that includes New York City, Long Island, the lower Hudson Valley, and the coastal region of Connecticut stretching from Stamford to New Haven.

The NY-CT Consortium would work to develop mixed-income housing, employment, and infrastructure in locations connected by the region's two commuter rail networks — Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road. By connecting transit-oriented development projects of sufficient scale, the Consortium has an opportunity to significantly move the needle on the number of affordable housing units, jobs in transit-accessible locations, lower carbon emissions, and other benchmarks of a more sustainable region. It would also tackle regional challenges such as developing communities and infrastructure systems that are resilient to climate change.

If those ambitions seem to be on a different scale than the size of the grant program, they are. But if it succeeds, the program will act as a catalyst for aligning future federal, state, regional, local, and private funding over an extended period. The federal interagency partnership has stated that it will use the outcomes of this round of grants to target future funding for infrastructure, housing, and related purposes. The initiative also may leverage new state initiatives. In New York State, the Governor has just signed into law the Public Infrastructure Priority Act, which instructs all state agencies to align their spending on infrastructure with criteria that align with the livability principles articulated by the federal partnership. In Connecticut, the Department of Economic and Community Development has pledged support from the state's Housing Incentive fund, Transit-Oriented Development planning grants, and brownfields programs.

Without question, this new federal effort is in its early stages and success is far from assured. Providing incentives for regions to pull together to file a grant application is very different from sustaining an effective partnership over the long-term. Many that do not receive initial funding are likely to dissolve. Even for those that do, the formation of a consortium is just the beginning of a longer process of public engagement, relationship-building and institutional reform.

Yet if the experience of the NY-CT Consortium is any guide, the program is already having an impact before any awards are made. Participants now talk to each other across municipal and state boundaries and that is likely to continue. Tangible benefits are already emerging in the form of improved project design and joint contracting to reduce program costs. The Consortium and its program will continue to evolve with additional stakeholder outreach, dialogue and research, and will hopefully connect with a national network of partnerships spawned by these modest incentives and ambitious goals.