The heads of the three White House Cabinet agencies primarily responsible for implementing the Livable Communities Initiative - Department of Transportation (DOT), Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) - all spoke to delegates at the Congressional City Conference.
The cross-agency initiative is focused on creating affordable, sustainable communities, with the goal of helping American families gain better access to affordable housing, more transportation options and lower transportation costs.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson addressed this initiative during the Congressional City Conference, as well as other priorities for their respective departments.
LaHood emphasized the success of the Transportation Investment to Generate Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants, asking NLC members to keep checking the DOT website for details on the second round of grants. He said the first round of grants brought out a lot of innovative projects that also incorporated affordable housing and green jobs.
"We know you like this program because you do not have to go through the states," he said.
LaHood, who also spoke separately during the conference to the NLC Board of Directors and members of three policy and advocacy committees, spoke about distracted driving, an important priority for the secretary. America's streets can't be safe when people are talking and texting on cell phones, he said. He called for similar action as to when tougher drunk driving and seat belt laws were enacted.
He asked local officials to look into passing ordinances that would prohibit local government employees from using a city-issued cell phone in a car or using a cell phone in a city-owned vehicle.
The Obama Administration is committed to a new surface transportation law that meets the needs of citizens, LaHood said. He also spoke of the President's commitment to high speed rail to link regions of the country and asked local governments to get involved as the program is developed.
The Department of Transportation is also committed to improving transit around the country, he said, noting billions in funding for transit projects such as streetcars and light rail.
"There are many communities that want to get into the streetcar business, the light rail business, to improve transit," LaHood said. "This is what people want - to be part of a livable, sustainable community, where people want more options to get out of their cars, get in on light rails or a bus or streetcar. ... You all can be a part of that. You can be partners with us."
Donovan stressed a desire for HUD to partner with cities on economic recovery, especially in relation to the housing market. He also said the Administration sees cities as the solution, not the problem.
The President, who understands the challenges cities face, and the Administration is committed to helping cities recover, he said.
HUD is committed to providing clearer expectations and guidance and more support to communities than ever before, Donovan said.
"In all of these efforts - promoting fair housing, preventing homelessness and disaster, stabilizing neighborhoods - our approach at the federal level is the same: Helping communities realize the things we all want for our communities - economies that are competitive, transportation options that mean we spend less time commuting to work, neighborhoods that are safer, more inclusive and vibrant - by providing choices that work for you, for your needs and your marketplaces," he said.
HUD's FY 2010 budget ushered in a new era of partnership with cities - putting in place a historic budget that ends over a decade of slow starvation of HUD programs, including full funding for the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), Donovan said. The budget also funds two new programs - the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities and Choice Neighborhoods Initiative.
The proposed 2011 budget is, if anything, an even bolder investment in cities, Donovan said. It maintains a strong commitment to the department's largest core rental assistance and economic development programs - CDBG and both Tenant- and Project-Based Section 8.
"I know change is never easy - that revitalizing our nation's communities won't happen overnight," Donovan said. "And having been a city official, I more than understand the frustrations of dealing with HUD in the past. But with the right tools, I've seen for myself how resilient and innovative our cities can be - how they can turn crisis into opportunity."
EPA Administrator Jackson cleared up a common misconception during the closing general session: that the U.S. has to choose between fixing the economy or the environment as it rebuilds its broken financial system.
"Here's the truth: over and over again, we've seen that well-conceived environment protection is good for economic growth," she said. "Now do not get me wrong, environmental regulations are not free. ...But what I want everyone to see is that, when we do have regulations and we enforce them, especially on the private sector, we're doing it as an investment in our country and an investment in our communities."
Jackson focused on the vital role and link between environmentalism and innovation and invention. She explained to delegates that, when done smartly, environmental protection nurtures innovation, creates a marketplace for clean technology goods and, through regulations, drives innovation inventions that are needed in that marketplace and create jobs.
To move to the next phase of environmental protection, Jackson said the U.S. needs to move beyond disputes between the economy and the environment and work in partnership, like the one that was created in developing the Clean Cars Program. In developing the program, automakers, autoworkers, environmentalists and governors worked together to create one roadmap for how cars will be developed to reduce global warming pollution and cut energy use. The roadmap, which would apply from 2010 to 2016, has been proposed and is soon to be finalized by the Obama Administration.
This year, the EPA plans to develop new air pollution standards and boost the production and use of advanced biofuels, which many believe will help break the country's dependence to foreign oil and create jobs in the U.S. Jackson also touched on what she called the "big three" - safe drinking water, waste water and brownfields.