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THE FEDERAL government spends tens of billions of dollars on housing and transportation, but voters would never knew that from the dearth of attention these issues have received in the presidential campaign. These expenditures have the potential for great improvements in society if they are combined in a policy that targets housing production and transportation projects to neighborhoods best able to accommodate growth.
In Washington, Congress is considering a six-year highway and public transit construction bill. The chief controversy is whether it will be limited to $256 bilion, as President Bush wants, or top $300 billion to satisfy each congressman's priorities. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is seeking $31 billion next year. The proposals are largely disconnected from each other, even though they have the potential to improve the lives of the same people.
A bipartisan group headed by former HUD secretaries Jack Kemp and Henry Cisneros offered a program last week to improve the housing programs and help end homelessness. Many of the homeless and other beneficiaries of federal housing programs are capable of working, but they have difficulty finding jobs when their communities have little access to employment opportunities. In the 1990s, the federal government increased the share of transportation money that went for public transit, but most is still allotted for the road-building without regard for whether new construction pushes jobs farther away from the people who need them most. Sprawl hurts the poor and makes it less convenient for the more affluent to access new jobs.
Kemp and Cisneros recommend that the government encourage local communities to assemble underutilized urban land for housing and economic development. This would better link underemployed people with good jobs. They also suggest that the government reward communities with bonuses if they devise land use plans that favor the creation of housing and economic development. An even bigger reward, however, would be the allocation of transportation funds to encourage development in urban areas that already have the utility infrastructure to accommodate it.
This is an agenda espoused by "smart growth" advocates, but neither Bush nor Kerry has championed this philosophy much on the campaign trail. The US population will soon reach 300 million, on the way to 419 million by 2050, according to census projections -- almost 80 percent in metropolitan areas. Eventually, many of these communities will run out of room. The presidential candidates shouldn't leave to a future election the case that federal policies should promote economic growth without encouraging sprawl.