Environmental Protection:

Federal Incentives Could Help Promote Land Use That Protects Air and Water Quality

GAO-02-12: Published: Oct 31, 2001. Publicly Released: Nov 6, 2001.

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Americans have become increasingly concerned about the downside of growth and development--increasing dependence on automobiles; worsening traffic congestion; and the loss of farmland, forests, and open space. Some are also concerned that "urban sprawl" can increase air and water pollution, endanger their health, and even threaten their livelihood. Most local transportation planners and state air quality managers do not consider the effects of different land use strategies on air quality. They do not do so principally because nonpoint sources are diffuse and difficult to identify and measure. According to local transportation planners and state air quality managers, federal agencies could help remove barriers to, and provide incentives for, assessing and mitigating the environmental impacts of land use. They proposed actions in the following three key areas: (1) financial incentives for transportation, environmental, and local decisionmakers to collaborate on land use strategies that limit adverse impacts on air and water quality; (2) technical capacity to assess and mitigate land use impacts; and (3) educating the public and local officials about the environmental impacts of their transportation and land use decisions and alternative development strategies that better protect air and water quality.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In June 2003, Administrator Whitman released a letter to agency Assistant Administrators, Deputy Assistant Administrators, and Regional Administrators supporting an EPA smart growth strategy and recommending three major steps the agency should undertake. Administrator Leavitt followed this up with the release of EPA's coordinated Smart Growth Strategy in August 2004. The Strategy is designed to ensure that EPA's actions help states and localities revitalize more brownfields and reduce the impact of development on air and water quality. Although the agency continues to support this strategy, it has not yet submitted a specific request to Congress for the necessary authority and resources to support such a strategy.

    Matter: Congress, for better assisting those states and localities that want to limit the environmental impacts of their land use decisions, may wish to provide EPA with an explicit mission, necessary authority, and additional funding, if possible, to implement the strategy that it devises to more completely and effectively assist the states and localities.

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On August 10, 2005, President Bush signed into law the final version of the transportation reauthorization bill, "Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users" or "SAFETEA-LU." Included in this bill are two provisions that link transportation funding to consideration of environmental impacts. The first is a continuation of a previously existing program, the Transportation, Community, and System Preservation Program. Among the criteria for fund eligibility is that applicants have: (1) instituted policies to integrate transportation, community, and system preservation practices such as spending policies that direct funds to high-growth areas; (2) urban growth boundaries to guide metropolitan expansion; and (3) "green corridor" programs that provide access to highway corridors for areas targeted for efficient and compact development. These are all tenants of smart growth policy. The second provision included in SAFETEA-LU related to consideration of environmental impacts on land use is Capital Investment Grants. According to the Act, grants are made under this provision to assist state and local governmental authorities in financing, among other things, "the development of corridors to support new fixed-guideways capital projects...including protecting rights-of-way through acquisition, construction of dedicated bus and high occupancy vehicle lanes and park and ride lots, and other nonvehicular capital improvements that...would result in increased public transportation usage in the corridor." Bus lanes, high occupancy vehicle lanes, and park and ride lots are all transportation projects that can have positive impacts upon air quality in a metropolitan area. In addition, the Act states that in making determinations for a major capital investment grant, the Secretary shall analyze, evaluate, and consider factors such as air pollution and the cost of suburban sprawl.

    Matter: Congress, for better assisting those states and localities that want to limit the environmental impacts of their land use decisions, may wish to, in reauthorizing the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, look for opportunities to use federal transportation funding as a means to encourage greater consideration of the environmental impacts of different land use strategies by (1) requiring such considerations as a part of the process to develop the transportation plan and transportation improvement program; (2) continuing by modifying funding programs already established to better link transportation and air quality so that they also integrate the consideration of impacts from different land use strategies, where appropriate; and (3) setting aside portions of federal transportation funds for projects that make this link, as well as helping to ensure that federal transportation funding does not conflict with efforts to control sprawl.

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: On August 10, 2005, President Bush signed into law the final version of the transportation reauthorization bill, "Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users" or "SAFETEA-LU." While this act did not specifically provide additional financial incentives, there is another bill before Congress, S. 941-"Suburban and Community Forestry and Open Space Program Act of 2005," that proposes to amend the Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act of 1978 and establish a program to provide cost-share grants to, among other goals, contain suburban sprawl. This bill was introduced and was referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. A related bill was introduced on 9/28/2005--H.R.3933--and was referred to the Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition and Forestry on 10/17/2005. As of April 2006, no additional action has been taken and no related legislation has been introduced.

    Matter: Congress, for better assisting those states and localities that want to limit the environmental impacts of their land use decisions, may wish to provide additional financial incentives, such as (1) providing federal agencies with greater discretion over a portion of their transportation or environmental funds to encourage assessment and mitigation of land use impacts on the environment; (2) providing states and localities with additional funds when possible to obtain the technical expertise, data, and analyses they need to assess land use impacts and mitigate adverse effects, as well as develop and implement total maximum daily loads; and (3) using funds to encourage collaboration among transportation, environmental, and land use planners, especially in developing plans that consider regional land use impacts and solutions.

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: On September 7, 2005, Rep. Gerlach introduced H.R. 3686, "Growing Smarter Through Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2005." This bill would amend federal highway and transportation law to instruct the pertinent metropolitan planning organizations to coordinate development of long-range highway and transit plans with affected units of general purpose local government in order to ensure consistency with local land use plans. As of April 2006, no additional action has been taken on this bill and legislation of this type does not appear to be forthcoming.

    Matter: Congress, for better assisting those states and localities that want to limit the environmental impacts of their land use decisions, may wish to look for opportunities to encourage and assist interested localities to revise outmoded laws and ordinances that limit the consideration of more productive land uses, as Congress proposes to do for states under the Community Character Act.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA is providing varied types of financial incentives to local decision makers to encourage land use solutions to environmental problems. For example, in 2005, EPA awarded six cooperative grants to local communities across the U.S. through the Smart Growth and Brownfield Redevelopment program. In addition, through EPA's Office of Policy, Economics, and Innovation (OPEI), in conjunction with the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER), EPA distributed nine grants totaling $405,000 to brownfields showcase communities that incorporate smart growth approaches in their revitalization efforts. OSWER has also continued its Brownfields Assessment Grants program, which provides up to $200,000 to assess and redevelop sites contaminated by hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants. In addition, OPEI awarded a grant entitled "Making Smart Growth Work: Streamlining the Development and Regulatory Process" to create a suite of tools that will help localities integrate smart growth into a more efficient and economically viable development process. OPEI has also partnered with EPA's Office of Children's Health to award $130,000 to five communities to fund locally based projects that improve and create healthy environments for children. Projects include developing a smart growth and children's health curriculum and administering walkability audits. Furthermore, EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality is working with three metropolitan areas (Charlotte, NC; Boston, MA; and Denver, CO) to quantify the emission reductions from brownfields redevelopment projects. Finally, EPA's Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards supported an integrated environmental initiative across the metropolitan area covering the Charlotte, NC/Rock Hill, SC region. This area is undergoing rapid growth and is a potential candidate for sprawl. The multi-year pilot project--"Sustainable Environment for Quality of Life"--is aimed at (1) demonstrating how EPA, through financial, technical, and other assistance, can help the region address issues related to urbanization and growth; and (2) developing a national planning model for integrating air and water concerns with issues of quality of life, energy, land use, and transportation.

    Recommendation: In devising this strategy, EPA should consider financial incentives. These incentives should be targeted to help Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO) and environmental officials collaborate with local decisionmakers to limit the adverse environmental impacts of land use. The incentives could either be funding criteria that explicitly require the consideration of the impacts of land use or higher shares of funding for projects designed through a collaboration of MPOs, environmental officials, and communities that limit land use impacts. EPA should also provide financial incentives to encourage regional land use solutions to environmental problems--ones that take advantage of organizational structures already in place that include the transportation, air quality, water quality, and land use agencies necessary for this regional perspective. In providing these financial incentives, EPA should target a portion to those localities that have the most potential to achieve air and water quality benefits, such as localities that anticipate significant future growth.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA is providing technical assistance to regions, states, and localities through research as well as direct support to help them better assess the impacts of land use on their environment. For example, the Office of Policy, Economics, and Innovation (OPEI) is releasing a study discussing the performance of different street patterns to further the understanding of how smart growth street networks can contribute to better transportation performance. Furthermore, through follow-up for the 2002 National Awards for Smart Growth Achievement, OPEI is providing each of the four award winners with custom-designed assistance to further smart growth research in the local areas. On the regional level, OPEI is partnering with EPA's Office in Region 1 to provide technical assistance for the redevelopment of a Superfund site in South Weymouth, Massachusetts. EPA is helping to analyze the impacts of different development scenarios, including smart growth, on the environment and quality of life at the site. EPA has also started a Smart Growth Implementation Assistance program designed to provide technical assistance from private-sector experts to help communities find the best tools and resources to plan for growth in ways that sustain environmental and economic progress and create a high quality of life. With regard to modeling, OPEI is continuing to work with new communities using the Smart Growth INDEX (SGI) to analyze the impacts of different development scenarios on the local environment and quality of life. Over 35 communities are now using SGI in their development decisions to better understand the impacts of land use. In addition, the Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards is providing technical assistance in the form of a data and visualization tool, called Regional Environmental Vulnerability Assessment, which is designed to help decision makers see the integrated impacts of local land use decisions. Finally, OPEI published new research on the impact of development patterns on water quality, providing information on how states and localities can protect water quality while planning for growth, as well as how to maximize the efficiency of current and projected water infrastructure such as waste water, storm water, and drinking water treatment systems.

    Recommendation: In devising this strategy, EPA should consider technical assistance. If MPOs and environmental officials are expected to assess land use impacts, the agency should provide them with additional technical tools, such as more access to (1) technical staff, especially in the regions; (2) simpler and more user-friendly models, such as watershed models that better assess the cumulative impacts of land use, as well as land use models; and (3) water-quality-monitoring equipment, methods, and data, including data on biological indicators of water quality. The agency should also plan to better market these tools and educate the officials about them.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA initiated projects with a number of federal and private-sector partners to better integrate environmentally sound development practices into community development. For example, EPA continues to work with Smart Growth America, the International City/County Management Association, and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation on a national campaign to prevent abandonment, redevelop vacant properties, and revitalize existing communities. Through a cooperative agreement with EPA's Development Community and Environmental Division, Smart Growth America released "Choosing Our Community's Future," a guidebook developed to assist communities in shaping the growth and development in their neighborhood. EPA's Office of Policy, Economics, and Innovation (OPEI) partnered with the Smart Growth Network to publish and distribute over 85,000 copies in 18 months of "Getting to Smart Growth: 100 Policies for Implementation," and followed that up with a second volume, "Getting to Smart Growth II: 100 More Policies." For the second annual National Awards for Smart Growth Achievement, OPEI added a new award focused on school location to emphasize the impact of school siting on community development patterns. OPEI is also partnering with the Council for Education Facility Planners and Engineers to update school guidelines that will encourage communities to redevelop or locate schools in existing, walkable neighborhoods. In addition, EPA initiated a Memorandum of Understanding with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to ensure that more EPA projects consider the health impacts of development. CDC has agreed to work with EPA, especially in highlighting the advantages of model land use regulations that address smart growth to improve community health. Furthermore, OPEI, the National Association of Realtors, and the Local Government Commission partnered to publish a document on how dense development and certain design techniques can create communities that minimize development impacts on the environment. OPEI awarded a grant to create a Smart Growth Starter Kit containing new outreach tools such as smart growth reports, presentations, and audio recordings on CD for educating decision makers, professional groups, and other interested parties. In addition, OPEI will provide a grant to support the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in January 2004. This conference encourages new stakeholders to participate in smart growth and helps to encourage innovations in smart growth at the local and state levels. Finally, OPEI sponsors a monthly speaker series that provides a public forum on development issues in the Washington, DC policy community. The series targets developers, community activists, environmentalists, architects, federal officials, local government officials, scholars, journalists, representatives of nonprofit organizations, and other interested constituencies to encourage development that serves the economy, community, and environment.

    Recommendation: In devising this strategy, EPA should consider public education. If land use decisionmakers and the general public are to collaborate on new transportation and land use strategies that are environmentally sound, the agency should better educate them about these strategies. In doing so, the agency could expand its efforts to work with other organizations, such as federal housing and economic development or private-sector agencies that already outreach to local communities.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA's Office of Policy, Economics, and Innovation (OPEI) has significantly contributed to reviewing rulemakings and guidance to assess their impact on smart growth efforts. Among the regulations reviewed are (1) the new particulate matter and ozone standards, (2) the revised 2002 total maximum daily load rules, and (3) EPA's water trading policy. In addition, OPEI provided comments on how to consider land use for a number of guidance documents such as those addressing brownfields revitalization and water quality impacts from the construction industry. Collaboration between offices within EPA has also increased. Specifically, OPEI is working with a team of people in the Office of Water to create fact sheets on development patterns and water quality. In addition, OPEI has continued its traditional internal partnerships with the Office of Transportation and Air Quality on issues related to the nexus between transportation planning and growth. Furthermore, the regional offices are beginning to collaborate on strategies that their respective communities can adopt to mitigate the impacts of unchecked growth. The regions are planning a meeting to discuss how growth is impacting efforts to protect the environment, what the regions are currently doing, and what they could do in the future to mitigate these impacts.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA should review key rules and program activities--such as water infrastructure funding programs and total maximum daily load requirements--to determine if they conflict with states' and localities' growth management efforts. The rules and programs might conflict by encouraging sprawl or by consuming disproportionate shares of available resources so that few are available to assess and mitigate land use impacts. The agency should also review these rules to determine if there are additional opportunities for states and localities to use land use as a means to comply with these rules.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To help transportation planners better assess the impacts of various development scenarios, FHWA's Office of Planning has implemented a program called "scenario planning." Although not specifically focused on air quality and land use, scenario planning tests various future development alternatives by analyzing the forces that affect growth, including transportation, economic, environmental, and land use. This program strives to involve all members of the community--general public, business leaders, and elected officials--in understanding and reaching agreement on a preferred development scenario. In addition, FHWA created a study, "Summary of Analysis Strategies for Measuring Regional Transportation Related Impacts of Growth Management and Land Use Strategies," which summarized modeling tools that measure the impacts of regional transportation on land use and development and presented the information in the context of the ways three communities estimated the effects of land use changes on travel patterns, energy use, and emissions. In addition, FHWA's Office of Natural and Human Environment issued a report entitled "Emissions Benefits of Land Use Planning Strategies." The principle purpose of the report was to provide information on past and current attempts at quantifying emissions benefits from changes in land use strategies in order to identify the state of the practice methods that can be applied by end-user communities and refined through applied and theoretical research. Projects that have been produced and are expected to be of use to local MPO include a basic, two-stage framework for articulating how land use and development patterns can affect mobile source emissions. This will be useful in communicating with local land use decision makers.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should consider using emissions data to encourage MPOs to assess the air quality impacts of different land uses when devising their transportation plans to help improve and preserve air quality. To help inform local land use decisionmakers of the air quality impacts of their plans and increase opportunities for collaboration on more protective land use strategies, the agency should encourage all MPOs to assess the emissions impacts of their transportation plans and provide these decisionmakers with the results. Smaller MPOs may need assistance from the Department of Transportation or other sources to conduct these assessments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) continues to focus on increasing the technical abilities of metropolitan planning organizations through its capacity building program. This program addresses training, technical assistance, and support for state and local governments as well as grants and increased financial assistance to, among other things, hire staff with requisite skills to conduct more thorough transportation planning. In addition, through the Travel Model Improvement Program (TMIP), FHWA encourages planning agencies to improve their land use forecasting capabilities through case studies and research. TMIP offers a seminar to state and local planners entitled "Forecasting Land Use Activities," which describes data needs and alternate methods to develop land use forecasts. In the reauthorized transportation bill, Congress has continued to fund the Transportation and Community and System Preservation Pilot Program. Many of the projects funded through this program have applied innovative analytical approaches to assess and communicate the impacts of transportation and land use decisions on mobility, the environment, and economic development. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have played a role in supporting this through projects that, for example, combine local land use data sources to provide regional database for forecasting and scenario analysis to forecast the land use impacts of transportation and plans. FHWA continues to expand its "tool kit" for integrating land use and transportation decision-making. This is a web based source of methods, strategies, and procedures for integrating land use and transportation planning, decision-making, and project implementation. This serves as a resource for local government land use and transportation planners. This toolbox includes technical analysis tools ranging from sketch-planning methods and GIS-based analyses to integrated urban models.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should consider using technical assistance to encourage MPOs to assess the air quality impacts of different land uses when devising their transportation plans to help improve and preserve air quality. To increase MPOs' technical capacity to assess land use impacts, the agency should provide them with tools, such as more access to (1) technical staff, especially for the smaller, less well-financed MPOs, and (2) transportation models that integrate land use planning and environmental protection.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On August 9th, 2004, Administrator Leavitt released EPA's coordinated Smart Growth Strategy and asked that each program and regional office ensure that all future investments in smart growth work align with it. The goal of the strategy is to ensure that EPA's actions help states and localities revitalize more brownfields and reduce the impact of development on air and water quality. It focuses on five target areas: (1) promote infill and redevelopment; (2) catalyze smart growth transportation solutions; (3) partner for innovative development and building regulations; (4) support state smart growth initiatives; and (5) ensure EPA policies recognize the environmental benefits of smart growth. Each of target areas contain a subset of priority strategies to guide the agency. The overall strategy highlights proposed projects to help EPA achieve the goals of the smart growth strategy.

    Recommendation: To better assist states and localities in considering and limiting, when possible, the environmental impacts of their land use decisions, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should devise a more comprehensive and cohesive strategy for providing this assistance. This strategy should more clearly define the agency's role and the outcomes it will achieve in terms of environmentally protective land use practices. The strategy should also specify how the agency will use its program and regional offices and leverage its available resources to achieve the specified outcomes. The agency should use this strategy as the basis for justifying needed authority and funding to Congress.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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