Obama’s Plans for the Suburbs: And How to Stop Them

Last Friday’s headlines focused on President Obama’s address at Argonne National Laboratory, where he proposed to spend $2 billion on an energy-security trust fund for renewable fuel research. Obama boldly pledged “to shift our cars entirely . . . off oil.”

How exactly is he planning to do that? Research will have an effect over time, but “entirely off oil” is either a greatly exaggerated or a very incomplete account of the administration’s energy plans. The New York Times story on Obama’s speech dryly notes that although the president “has vowed to make addressing climate change a priority in his second term . . . he has provided only scant details on how he intends to act.”

Look closely, however, and it’s possible to spot some troubling plans. The Times, and just about every other major news outlet, neglected to note that on the day of Obama’s Argonne speech, the Department of Energy released a series of coordinated reports called “Transportation Energy Futures” (developed in cooperation with Argonne). This DOE project explores a variety of strategies designed to curb America’s greenhouse gas emissions up to 80 percent by about 2050.

Arguably the most controversial of those reports covers the “effects of the built environment on transportation.” To put it plainly, the “built environment” report lays out strategies the federal government can use to force development away from suburbs and into cities, supposedly for the sake of reducing carbon dioxide emissions given off by all those suburban commuters. The Obama administration wants to force so-called smart growth policies on the country: get out of your car, stay out of the suburbs, move into small, tightly-packed urban apartment complexes, and walk or take public transportation instead of driving.

The Department of Energy’s built environment report lays out a scenario much like the one I described in Spreading the Wealth: How Obama is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities. The report highlights two policy options most likely to increase dense, Manhattan-style urban development, without exceeding the traditional limits of federal authority. Those options are eliminating the home-mortgage interest deduction and conditioning future federal aid of all kinds on local adherence to “smart growth” principles. Of these, I think the second is the most likely to be implemented. The built environment report also says that the most convenient bureaucratic channel through which to manage such federal pressure is the Partnership for Sustainable Communities.

The built environment report acknowledges that conditioning federal aid on population density would be political dynamite. And this, of course, is why Obama loudly touted his plans for an energy security trust fund, while downplaying the DOE’s report release. Essentially, the built environment report suggests that federal funding on new schools or roads might be held to population density criteria that would starve projects in suburbs in favor of those in cities. I’ve argued elsewhere that these so-called smart growth policies are about a lot more than greenhouse gases. The global warming issue serves here as a justification for wealth redistribution on a grand scale.

The other major, yet still largely unnoticed, energy story from last Friday was the Bloomberg report on the Obama administration’s plans to order all federal agencies to consider global warming (i.e. carbon dioxide emissions) before approving large projects. I’ve already discussed the potential of this new administrative order to block construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Yet the impact of these new Obama administration guidelines will likely be far wider.

The Bloomberg report notes that once carbon dioxide emissions can be invoked in court, not just oil pipelines but even highway construction can be delayed or blocked (all those suburban commuter fumes). So Obama’s new regulatory guidelines may shortly give environmental groups the power to call a halt to a whole series of suburban development projects.

How can these changes be fought? Publicity helps. Controversial policies like “smart growth” often operate under the public’s radar. Obama wants the energy debate to focus on benign-sounding research plans, while his administration’s interest in placing the massive power of federal funding behind urban densification strategies goes unnoticed.

The other way to block Obama’s plans is to have Congress cut funding for the Sustainable Communities Initiative. In particular, future funding for the Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant program ought to be eliminated. Although the cost of these planning grants is small, their potential impact is large, especially if the administration follows through with the built environment report’s option of conditioning a wide range of federal aid on local adherence to so-called smart-growth planning. (I described these troubling “sustainability” grants in “Obama’s Plan for Ohio.”)

Budget-cutting House Republicans were able to halt funding of Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grants in fiscal year 2012. Blocking that funding again with a targeted public campaign wouldn’t entirely end the program. There are still plenty of fully-funded planning grants out there. Even so, a successful public battle over future funding for these “Sustainable Communities” planning grants might discourage the administration from carrying through on the sort of anti-suburban proposals contained in the built environment report.

It may already be too late to prevent the administration’s new directive on carbon-dioxide pollution standards from sparking a series of court challenges to suburban highway construction, and perhaps other forms of suburban development as well. But it’s not too late to prevent the most powerful blow of all — the aggressive use of conditional federal funding to Manhattanize America.

Tea Party take note. You might want to encourage your representatives in Congress to block future funding for Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grants. A public battle on that issue just might discourage the administration from pulling the trigger on its most draconian anti-suburban plans.



Leave a Reply

Search All Posts