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  •   Gore Proposal Aims at Urban Sprawl

    Vice President Gore (Reuters File Photo)
    By Judith Havemann
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, January 11, 1999; Page A2

    Vice President Gore will propose today a $10 billion bond program to help communities preserve green space, reduce traffic congestion, protect water quality and clean up abandoned industrial sites.

    The "Better America Bonds" initiative will be one of the larger new proposals in the president's budget for fiscal 2000, officials said. While less costly than a budget proposal announced a week ago to provide tax breaks to Americans who need long-term care, the vice president's plan would inject unprecedented new federal funds into efforts to curb urban sprawl and improve the quality of life in burgeoning areas of the country.

    So-called "livability" issues are of growing importance in many metropolitan areas across the country. Nearly 200 open space and other initiatives were on ballots last November, and 70 percent of them passed.

    The vice president "has got it right," said Mayor Brent Coles of Boise, Idaho. "Out here in the Northwest, there is quite a bit of land, but we are also seeing quite a bit of urban sprawl, with more traffic. About 100 lots a year are being built on our foothills and sometime in 1999, we will have a vote on a [tax] to buy some of those foothills.

    "It will pass because it rates very high on people's minds out here," said Coles, who is a Republican.

    Gore's "livability agenda," intended to improve the quality of the nation's social and economic life in the next century through the work of a dozen federal agencies, is expected to be a major theme of his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. It includes increased funding for public transit, air quality preservation and coordination of transportation and planning in metropolitan regions.

    Competitive grants would be available to help communities develop education plans, upgrade computer systems for land-use planning and exchange information among jurisdictions about crime.

    "Federal engagement in this issue is absolutely essential," said Bruce Katz, director of the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policies at the Brookings Institution. "The dominant trend in America is the decentralization of the economy, the spreading-out of the metropolitan areas and the increasing isolation of urban residents, particularly the minority poor.

    "These are, in part, the result of federal and state policies that have facilitated the out-migration of urban residents" by funding transportation, sewer and other systems at the edges of metropolitan areas, he said.

    Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, called the Gore plan a good first step, especially if accompanied by an end to policies that encourage sprawl. "If we didn't subsidize sprawl, we wouldn't have sprawl. Low-density, habitat-gobbling, traffic-creating growth doesn't pay for itself. It only happens because both the federal government and the states subsidize it."

    The outward growth of American metropolitan areas has eaten up 1.5 million acres of farmland each year since 1960, federal figures show.

    The new "Better America Bonds," if approved by Congress, would allow state, local and tribal governments to obtain zero-interest financing because investors who buy the 15-year bonds would receive tax credits in lieu of interest. The cost to taxpayers of the bonds is projected at $700 million over the first five years, which is what the administration is required to account for in its summary budget proposal. The total 15-year cost of the bond program could not be ascertained yesterday.

    The initial federal cost is low because such bond programs typically take several years to get up and running. The cost would increase over time.

    The bonds are proposed to be used to preserve and enhance green space, create or restore urban parks and buy or get permanent easements on suburban open space and threatened wetlands. Rivers, lakes and drinking water sources could be protected by constructing ponds or planting buffer strips. In addition, the bonds would be available to supplement existing administration initiatives to clean up abandoned industrial sites.

    State, local and tribal governments would submit proposals to the Environmental Protection Agency for initial review in consultation with other agencies. The EPA would decide which communities could issue the bonds in conjunction with the vice president's Community Empowerment Board and other agencies.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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