Rebuilding Metropolitan Areas as a Way of Rebuilding America

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

PRESIDENT OBAMA addressed a meeting of leading thinkers and advocates Monday to redefine "urban policy." The mission is to strip it of narrow and negative connotations (slums, poverty and crime) and imbue it with a broader purpose, recognizing the importance of metropolitan areas to the nation's prosperity. We applaud this effort. But recent events show how difficult it will be.

For decades, cities were ignored or considered afterthoughts as the middle class and its tax base fled, leaving those who remained with mounting economic and social problems. The 1990s brought a resurgence of cities and ushered in a new way of looking at them as part of sprawling metropolitan areas with interdependent localities. Today, according to the Obama administration, these areas are home to more than 80 percent of the nation's jobs and residents and 90 percent of the nation's economic production.

Urban policy already is being redefined by many states and localities around the country. The high-density commercial and residential plan for Fairfax County in anticipation of new Metro stops there is a prime example. And Mr. Obama is right to charge his director of urban affairs and his Cabinet with taking "a hard look at how Washington helps or hinders our cities and metro areas -- from infrastructure to transportation; from housing to energy; from sustainable development to education." That shouldn't take long, especially on the "hinder" portion of the assignment. While Washington overflows with decades of examples, two instances have occurred since Mr. Obama's inauguration.

Remember when Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in February that he was looking at a tax on vehicle miles traveled (VMT) as an alternative to the gas tax to replenish the nearly bone-dry Highway Trust Fund? A pilot VMT program in Oregon proved successful. But faster than you can say "Fill 'er up," the idea was shot down by the White House. Never mind that a VMT is an appealing way to reduce traffic, fuel consumption and carbon emissions, making it a worthy tool in Mr. Obama's urban policy vision.

Meanwhile, a study by the New York Times of how transportation stimulus funding has been allocated showed that the 100 largest metropolitan areas got less than half of $26.6 billion for highways, bridges and other projects. Washington allowed states to decide how that money should be dispersed, leaving it prey to local politics. That's not a good start toward recognizing the key economic role of metropolitan areas.

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