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How the next president will maximize metro potential

Immediately following the major party nominating conventions, on Monday, Sept. 8, the Metropolitan Planning Council hosted surrogates for the presidential candidates at its 2008 Annual Luncheon. The event featured Illinois State Rep. James Durkin (R-Western Springs), national legislative co-chair and Illinois co-chair for Sen. John McCain; and former San Antonio Mayor and HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, executive chairman of CityView, for Sen. Barack Obama. Carlos Hernandez Gomez, CLTV political reporter, moderated the forum, Metropolitan Mandate: How the Next President Will Maximize Metro Potential, one of the first substantive policy discussions of the general election campaign.

MPC asked the surrogates to address the same three questions – focusing on economic development, transportation infrastructure, and housing options – to ascertain how the candidates, if elected, would address some of the most urgent issues confronting America’s metropolitan regions.

The following are the questions MPC provided in advance to the campaigns and excerpts of the responses from Rep. Durkin and Secy. Cisneros on September 8th. To watch the complete program, Chicago residents can tune into Channel 21 on Sunday, Oct. 19, at 10:30 a.m.; or to Channel 19 on Monday, Oct. 20, at 8 a.m., or Friday, Nov. 7, at 8 a.m.

Economic Development

With escalating gas prices, rising foreclosure rates, growing unemployment, and stagnant economies, metro regions across America are confronting complex, thorny issues that threaten the health and prosperity of their residents. In metropolitan Chicago , for example, decades of uncoordinated development patterns have resulted in an overburdened transportation network that cannot meet current needs, much less anticipated growth, as well as an insufficient supply of workforce housing options near well-paid jobs and quality schools. Like Chicago, many of the nation’s oldest cities are experiencing failures in the infrastructure that brings people and resources in and out of their metro areas, including pipes, tunnels, bridges, and rails. Across the U.S. , sprawling land-use patterns inhibit affordable housing options and urban density, while increasing numbers of metro areas are facing the threat of severe water shortages and contaminated water supplies.

Metros are home to 80 percent of the U.S. population, and generate 85 percent of the nation’s economy. In the Chicago region, the ratio is comparable: 75 percent of the population and 66 percent of the state’s economic activity. However, the federal government currently lacks a cohesive, comprehensive policy agenda for helping America ’s metropolitan areas reach their full potential.

How would your candidate’s administration change how the White House and key federal departments work with state, regional and local policymakers, such as the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), to provide the tools and resources to build attractive and economically competitive communities -- where the needs of the present are met without compromising the needs of the future – while accelerating climate action plans and expanding access to housing, jobs and transportation?

Secy. Cisneros cited Sen. Obama’s plan to create a White House Office on Urban Policy.

“As a resident of Chicago, Senator Obama, as an engaged community leader over many years, and as an elected representative of this area, he understands urban and metropolitan regions well. The Brookings Institution, a much respected think tank, has published a seminal piece of work in the last year on the significance of metropolitan regions in the country. It is really powerful evidence of what a significant role these engines like the Chicago area and others around the country play. In response to the work he did on that report, Senator Obama, this last summer, speaking to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, announced that as president, he would create the first White House Office on Urban Policy to coordinate federal urban initiatives.

This model of a coordinating body within the White House, this one would report directly to the President, and combine the efforts of the Departments of Housing & Urban Development, Transportation, Labor, and Commerce in a White House coordination of urban policy.

This policy entity would, for example, fund innovation clusters to identify, to plan, to provide capital for research parks, for incubators, all in the name of job creation and in the name of creating capital for emerging business developments. This office would also work on reversing the trajectory of cuts of the last few years that have reduced healthcare funding, provided educational mandates without federal support, and failed to adequately address the affordable housing crisis.

Again, it would be a policy body which would conceive and coordinate the federal government’s relationship with metropolitan areas, and create a collaboration on critical things that involve multiple departments such as Promise Neighborhoods, neighborhoods that build on the Harlem Children’s Zone of focusing on fixed geography in our cities where there are children’s needs, smart growth that brings growth into infill areas, scholarships to attract high quality teachers to urban neighborhoods, restoring community oriented policing, community policing, and working on metropolitan emergency communications in a time when this is needed.

Given that this is a White House policy office, and I would expect an economic policy office to also exist, working on issues related to generating savings, reducing taxes in particular areas, generating additional resources in other areas, the coordination between federal resources policy, budget and tax policy within the White House, I think will free up some of the resources to do these kinds of things.”

Rep. Durkin stated Sen. McCain’s goal is to address job creation and workforce development.

“Cities are the economic engines of our nation, and American cities are the economic engines for the world, and it could be even truer in Chicago . The challenges facing cities in the next administration will be how we increase our global competitiveness and how we assist our businesses and our workforce to maintain an economic preeminence.

We have a deep commitment to economic development, and are committed to bringing business leaders, labor leaders, educators, and policymakers together to retain, attract, and expand business throughout the nation.

One of the greatest ways the federal government can help cities such as Chicago to meet their potential is to allow small businesses to do what they do best, and that’s to create jobs. We need to create an environment for those small businesses to thrive. We have experienced increasing government regulations and taxes that stifle small businesses. But if we are to allow the economy to grow and create sustainable employment, we must release that creativity, ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit that has made American business second to none.

John McCain proposes increasing, as I said earlier, community-based programs like community college access, accessing social service programs to assist under trained workers, and to address areas where we face critical skills shortages.

I think that what John McCain is, truly, is an environmentalist … But John McCain has a record which goes back many years, and he’s very considerate and very understanding of how we must ensure that the environmental standards that we have in this country are going to stay in place.

John McCain believes in state rights … But he also understands that there is too much at stake within our major metropolitan areas to let those issues that affect them go to the wayside and allow for state government is going to solve some of the problems that we have in Chicago.”

Transportation

Recent studies, including one from the congressionally mandated National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission, have determined the gas tax will soon be an unsustainable revenue source for our highways, bridges, and transit systems (due to many reasons, including an increase in alternative-fueled vehicles and decreasing vehicle miles traveled). At the same time, the study unequivocally states there is a $100+ billion per year gap between what local, state and federal sources currently generate for surface transportation investments and what is actually needed to maintain and enhance our current transportation network. This shortfall between current funding and needs is readily apparent in metro areas such as Chicago . Road congestion has doubled in 20 years, commuter trains and buses are standing-room-only, and our rail network -- which serves as the hub of North America -- moves freight trains at less than 10 miles per hour due to an antiquated, 19th Century system that is desperately in need of modernization.

How would the administration of your candidate prioritize and fund future transit, road, and freight transportation investments that will be sustainable, environmentally sound, and keep metro regions and the United States competitive in the global marketplace?

Rep. Durkin described the “stranglehold” traffic congestion has on the economy, particularly in the Chicago area, and how Sen. McCain would prioritize federal investments.

“The issues of traffic congestion, the expansion of mass transit and energy independence are clearly interconnected … This congestion is also deteriorating our air quality with the ever-increasing price of fuel, and quite frankly, it’s draining our pocketbooks. We’re the third most congested region in the nation. Vehicular traffic congestion is not only a quality of life issue for citizens, but also a business and job related issue for people in the state.

If we agree that the solution to congestion and poor air quality is a local, regional, and federal commitment to improved infrastructure and increased public transit, then we have to fulfill that mission … The private sector must play a major role in the renewal of urban infrastructure. Look at the examples from around the world. Public-private partnerships offer some of the most innovative and most promising approaches.

Given the new urban dynamics and the shortfall of current revenue streams, we must overhaul how we plan, finance, and deliver infrastructure projects, and we must move beyond roadway expansion and repair. Our development and environmental future depends on how we improve the infrastructure – schools, bridges, hospitals, so on and so on. The private sector may do a better job – help us to build, operate, and maintain infrastructure improvements at a lesser cost.

Local governments are facing increasing difficulties in making our federal match, but inter-agency and inter-jurisdictional collaboration, planning and communication will advance our development policies and create the quality sustainable growth that our nation needs.

Federal transportation funds are very important for every state, every region. But I want to be perfectly clear. Under John McCain, federal dollars for transportation are going to demand greater accountability and transparency during this appropriation process. John McCain is going to put an end to the earmarking process as we know it … he says that if I see a pork-laden bill come across my desk, one of those traditional earmarks, he’s going to veto it and make that congressman famous.”

Secy. Cisneros highlighted the importance of improving the Chicago region’s infrastructure as well, and outlined two of Sen. Obama’s proposed initiatives to do so.

“The answer to both the short-term economic downturn and the need to create jobs and re-stimulate the economy and also the longer-run challenge to the economy, which is to create a competitive economy, is infrastructure, an infrastructure that rivals what our economic rivals in Asia and in Europe are doing … Senator Obama knows the role of regional planning such as the Metropolitan Planning Council so that critical infrastructure dollars are applied to needs.

The transfer of containers from rail to truck, the increase in passenger rail capacity, the freight system here, passenger rail ridership, etc. All of these are critical pieces of what’s going to have to be done in the Chicago area. There probably isn’t another metropolitan area in the country that needs the infrastructure upgrading more than the Chicago area.

Barack Obama has offered two major initiatives that would prioritize infrastructure. One is an emergency economic plan of $25 billion jobs and growth fund to replenish the Highway Trust Fund. And the other, which he’s been talking about now for the last year, is the National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank.

With a President Barack Obama, the opportunity to pass an infrastructure bank, which is long overdue, $60 billion to put into needed infrastructure, is key, over ten years. Leverage private dollars beyond that, and reform the federal transportation funding process so that prioritization is given to metropolitan areas with the collaboration of local leaders, public and private, to identify the needs.

Senator Obama has been on this agenda for a long time. Even when he was in the State Senate in Illinois , he sponsored a bill that created a coordinating mechanism for transportation to get low income workers out to where the jobs are now, out at the airport and in the outer suburbs. So increasing funding for infrastructure with an eye on jobs and people’s needs has been a Barack Obama priority for a long time.”

Housing

Over the past few years, the homeownership market in the U.S. has plummeted. In the first half of 2008, close to 1.5 million – or one in every 530 -- households filed for foreclosure. The nation’s rental market is not a safe back up for families, especially as affordable options dwindle across the country. Nearly 43 percent of working families in America cannot afford local fair market rents. Furthermore, where housing is less expensive, jobs and other opportunities are scarce. Add to this the burden of todays as prices and infrastructure deficiencies, and it is no wonder traffic congestion and housing cost burdens continue to plague communities from coast to coast.

Thanks in great part to the increased participation of employers and municipalities, alongside traditional housing professionals. In education and advocacy efforts, Illinois has made strides in confronting these challenges. Business leaders are investing in housing solutions for the local workforce, as well as speaking up about how essential housing is to maintaining a competitive workforce. Similarly, municipal leaders – many working together to explore regional solutions to housing challenges -- are much more vocal about the need for state and federal policies that build community support and enable fresh thinking about zoning ordinances, building codes, and other barriers to affordable housing.

What will your candidate’s administration do to revitalize the federal government’s approach to housing? How will he reform the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development? What incentives and policies will he introduce to ensure federal housing dollars advance and inspire local housing strategies that support comprehensive planning and regional cooperation?

Secy. Cisneros pointed to the nation’s current housing crisis and a top priority for the next president, whoever it is.

“We are here on a historic day, a day in which – I never thought I’d see come, when the federal government would have to step in and take over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac because this housing crisis has reached the point that it has truly had the potential to damage the entire not only national, but global economy. So the first set of initiatives are going to relate to trying to restimulate the housing markets, deal with the backlog of inventory of foreclosed properties, try to get the credit crunch addressed so that lending can begin again. Hopefully this measure today is part of that process. Senator Obama supports the measure that was taken today by Secretary Paulson because it is so critical.

Beyond dealing with the crisis will be addressing the crises that have been created by federal policy of the last eight years. So, restoring full funding to community development block grant funding … critical in the cities. This [Bush] administration wanted to end the program and send it to another department. Fully funding Section 8 public housing operating subsidies … hugely important in this city. We know how important public housing is in Chicago . And, acting on the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which was created by the recent legislation that was passed ... A whole series of practical things that focus on how HUD works instead of trying to denigrate it, marginalize it, diminish it, would be a part of a Barack Obama focus.

In the final analysis, partnerships to go forward like working with your, MPC’s, employer assisted housing initiative, which is, I believe, the best in the country. You have circumstances here where 70 employers are now involved in trying to help their employees become homeowners. You have an experience with that program that has virtually zero foreclosure because it understood the significance of counseling and assistance.”

Rep. Durkin outlined his candidates approach to helping America ’s homeowners.

“John McCain clearly believes that there’s nothing more important than keeping alive the American dream of owning a home … He believes that no taxpayer money should bail out real estate speculators or financial market participants who fail to perform due diligence in assessing credit risk. Assistance for borrowers shall be focused solely on the homeowners, and any government assistance to the banking system should be based on preventing systemic risk.

John McCain has proposed this home plan to help those hurt by the housing crisis, and so that every deserving owner will be afforded the opportunity to trade a burdensome mortgage for a manageable loan which reflects the home’s market value. Senator McCain does support the federal takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but he also believes that it needs to be stabilized, scaled down, and at some point they should be sent out to the private sector, they should be taken off the taxpayers’ backs.

If there is a McCain presidency, one thing that I would ask him to do is to think out of the box. I would ask him to take a look at what other cities have done to promote growth, but also to keep housing affordable … And one thing we should look at is what’s happened in the city of Houston. We should draw ideas from the model which they’ve created many years ago. Houston is considered the freest city in America . There’s no major zoning on how property owners use their land. Because of this, Houston is the most affordable major city in America , where housing costs are approximately half of the major urban areas. Cities with zoning and strong planning authority, for example, Portland and San Jose , have the least affordable housing and the fastest growing congestion and the fastest growing taxes and declining services.”

In closing, Gomez summarized the surrogates’ messages as follows:

"Secretary, your essential thesis here, when it comes to housing, transportation, and economic development, is that Senator Obama has a unique position, being from a large urban area, having worked in an urban area, and that he will bring sort of more of a policy sort of focus on different issues to the White House, along with certain targeted assistance.

Rep. Durkin, the Cliffs Notes version of your answers to these three questions is that part of it involves a more responsible tax policy that supports growth, one that in some areas decreases regulation in terms of housing, and in other areas perhaps has a more watchful eye over lending practices and how federal money is doled out."

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