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Economic Forecasts

Highway Bill to Spur Land Use Changes

Uncle Sam’s new focus: More mixed-use developments, fewer long commutes.

The federal government’s coming transportation legislation will favor cities and states that adopt zoning policies aimed at reducing traffic congestion -- a philosophical shift that will bring about the most significant land use changes since the creation of the interstate highway system.

The new mindset seeks to reverse past planners’ “build it and they will come” mentality -- the kind of thinking that led to urban sprawl and helped create a heavy reliance on motor vehicles for getting around.

States and cities will have to rethink zoning to permit more mixed-use projects, including those that combine residential, retail and commercial developments, which for decades have been largely segregated, requiring Americans to hop into their cars to go to work, stores, playgrounds, etc.

Look for Congress to pass the next highway bill sometime early next year. The legislation, to run for six years, is expected to provide about $350 billion for transportation infrastructure projects -- a 50% increase over the previous highway bill, which expired last September.

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The lion’s share of the new money will be devoted to maintaining existing roads, bridges, overpasses and tunnels -- not to building new ones, unless states can show they would be critical to easing traffic jams.

But Congress also wants to put a big emphasis on “livable communities,” with funding priority going to cities and towns that design projects that would make it easier for people to get around without a car. That will mean an 80% jump -- to $99 billion over six years -- in federal funding for buses, light rail and subways.

First dibs will go to projects that offer well thought-out, integrated mobility plans -- for example, repairs to existing roads combined with the addition of more commuter buses, light rail, parks, bicycle paths and sidewalks that connect developments to shops and offices.

“If we develop more compact, walkable, mixed-use developments, we’ll need fewer large highways and arterial roads in the future,” says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Such projects would help to save money as well as be more environmentally friendly in the long run.

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Some states and communities are already thinking along these lines.

For example, Virginia last year amended its transportation plan to require new housing subdivisions to make it easier -- and quicker -- for residents to run errands locally without having to hop on nearby highways.

The San Francisco suburb of Petaluma, Calif., arranged to use $500,000 in federal highway money to install sidewalks connecting residents and local shopping areas. The community made it easier for pedestrians to cross local roads and also installed numerous bus shelters to promote the use of mass transit.

And Atlanta’s Livable Communities Initiative spent more than $2.2 million in federal highway funds and about $1.2 million in state funds on bike lanes, sidewalks, turn lanes and bus shelters in the far northern suburb of Roswell, Ga. Meanwhile, about $1 million in federal highway funds and about $250,000 in state funds went to upgrade bridge, bicycle and pedestrian crossings in Powder Springs, Ga.