Take opportunity to make Illinois a true innovator - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Take opportunity to make Illinois a true innovator

It's been about five months since federal stimulus dollars were dispersed, and everyone's analyzing whether the funding is creating enough — and the right — jobs.

Recovery funding was intended to boost a weak market, so counting jobs is one measure of success. But the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has a longer-term goal: to move toward a strong, sustainable economy.

President Barack Obama's administration clearly is thinking differently about how the federal government invests, and wants local and state governments to do the same.

In July, the White House Office of Urban Affairs and the Domestic Policy Council met with civic and community leaders for a daylong discussion about the future of America's metropolitan areas. Mr. Obama is deploying his Cabinet around the country — including to Chicago in September — to take a hard look at how Washington's policies and spending priorities, or lack thereof, help or hinder infrastructure, housing, energy, education, workforce and sustainable development in our metropolises.

As the feds debate a new surface transportation funding bill, one disconnect already getting attention is the traditional and arbitrary funding split between roads and transit. A more flexible approach would be to fund any mode of transportation, provided it achieves local and national goals.

Indeed, for too long, federal policies have squelched local innovation. Municipalities have had to jump through hoops and untangle contradictory regulations from separate agencies to implement the type of projects that stretch and target taxpayer dollars — such as a North Shore effort including Highland Park, Highwood and Lake Forest to coordinate and focus the towns' workforce housing investments near rail lines.

Local coordination and innovation will get support from the fed's new Sustainable Communities Initiative. The U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency are working together — that alone is a seismic shift — to prioritize investments in more affordable homes near transit, jobs and training opportunities, helping families save on their top two household expenses.

Is Illinois ready? Some communities are. Seventeen south suburbs submitted a joint application for the Neighborhood Stabilization Program funding to help them recover from rampant home foreclosures. This groundbreaking collaborative recognizes that all communities gain if funding is focused wisely on areas hit hardest and near jobs and transit.

Recently, Illinois lawmakers had the opportunity to approve a bill that would base state transportation investments on clearly defined goals such as, "Does this project help reduce commutes, curb emissions and connect affordable homes and job centers?"

They punted. The new state capital bill is a huge missed opportunity to put Illinois on a path to prosperity. Looks like we have a way to go before we're a true innovator.

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