The Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) by the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) is a grant program intended to promote urban regeneration in metro Atlanta communities. But the projects the grants have funded have had little success in creating any sustained new economic activity. Moreover, the program is supported by federal gas taxes that are supposed to be dedicated to national highways. Nonetheless, other cities around the country, from Albany to San Francisco are using it as a model. If ARC wants to continue with the LCI program, and if other cities want to follow the model, two simple rules should be followed: first, it should be funded locally; second, it should focus on activities that have been shown to actually underpin economic development, such as the construction and maintenance of roads –especially if it is funded by gas taxes.
The ARC, the metropolitan planning organization for Atlanta, started the LCI program in 1999. It awards planning grants on a competitive basis to local governments and nonprofit organizations that prepare plans for the enhancement of existing centers and corridors consistent with regional development policies. The plan attempts to link current land use with planned transportation improvements. The initiative has been widely popular with local governments. From its inception through December 2010 the LCI program has funded 107 projects in 48 different geographic areas. It won the American Planning Association’s National Planning Excellence Award for Implementation in 2009 and the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Award for Smart Growth in 2008.
When the LCI program helps cities build appropriate infrastructure, it has the potential to be a useful tool. Planning for future growth can create higher-quality developments at lower costs. Some of the grants have supported transportation improvements. The city of Marietta and Cobb County received a grant to study bus rapid transit (BRT) in the Delk Road area. The city of Alpharetta used an LCI grant to study transit possibilities in the Northpoint Activity Center. Typically LCI grants are modest, between $80,000 and $150,000. In some cases, part of the cost of studies has been funded by private businesses, thereby leveraging the public funds.
However, there are numerous problems with the LCI program.
First, LCIs use federal gas tax funds to support local projects. Funding for this program comes specifically from the L-230 funds in the highway section of the state’s transportation bill, not the transit section or the intermodal section. Highway funding is intended to support national highways that facilitate interstate commerce by moving goods and people along roads such as I-75 and GA 400. Yet LCI grants have been used to support non-highway-oriented projects such as the development of Cycle Atlanta on the premise that it would connect job centers and residential areas by bike lanes. Another LCI grant is slated to enhance the Marietta University District which focuses on land usage, and not highway infrastructure, along U.S. 41.
More generally, non-motorized transport receives most of the resources from LCI grants. As of March 2011, $97,631,660 supported pedestrian facilities. Another $44,934,471 supported combined bicycling and pedestrian facilities. Only $15,438,929 supported roadway operations; $9,221,900 supported transit facilities, and $9,020,229 supported multi-use trails and other facilities. Sidewalks and bike paths do not facilitate much interstate commerce. Moreover, the transportation elements of these projects are regional at best.
Second, most of the projects have little to do with transportation. For example, two of the five new 2012 projects are economic development projects. The Lakewood Activity Center creates strategies for growth and development around the Lakewood Fairgrounds. This includes new movie and television production jobs. The Stone Mountain Community Improvement District Vision and Strategies is intended to assist the district in developing policies to accommodate emerging industry sectors. Two others: the Stonecrest Activity Center that creates pedestrian-oriented communities to improve the long-term economic viability and the Marietta University District that improves the visibility of the universities dedicate more of their resources to economic development than to transportation. Transportation funds should not support economic development projects.
Most importantly, the LCI often fails to spur any development. Historically, development in metro Atlanta has followed the market. There is no evidence to indicate that LCI grants have changed that. Although redevelopment occurred in Dunwoody and Norcross after they received LCI grants, both of these cities were already undergoing redevelopment. Redevelopment would have occurred without the grants. Meanwhile, The LCI grants in the city of Atlanta south of I-20 and Clayton County, where economic development was lagging, have failed to create any substantial activity.
For example, South Lake mall has several grayfield and brownfield sites. A 2010 LCI grant center was supposed to create an activity center. While project funds bought several new park benches and decorative light fixtures, the program did not spur any economic development. The city of Morrow received a grant for a train station. While the train station would anchor the mixed-use development, train service remains at least 20 years away. The Greenbriar area in South Atlanta received funds in 2000 to study infill development around the mall area. Development goals were to encourage a wider range of mixed-uses and a higher balance between jobs and residents. The grant led to very little new development. One grant led to corruption. Olde Town Morrow in Clayton County pitched as a tourist attraction and quaint shopping destination sits empty beside I-75. The city of Morrow still owes about $9 million for the discontinued project. John Lampl, former Morrow city manager and director of Morrow Downtown Development Authority, was indicted for illegally entering into contracts for construction of the project. While LCI’s may help remedy transportation issues in thriving areas, they have failed to spur economic development in struggling areas.
The Livable Centers Initiative has been so popular among local Atlanta governments that other regions, including Albany, N.Y., Denver, Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., and San Francisco have used it as a model. LCI has the potential to be a useful program, enabling economically depressed areas to make changes necessary to spur development. But it is currently being used largely to support politically correct initiatives that divert taxpayer money into unproductive investments. That is counterproductive. For it to be useful, whether in Atlanta or elsewhere, it should be refocused on activities that have a proven track record of underpinning economic development, such as the construction and maintenance of roads.
Baruch Feigenbaum is a Transportation Policy Analyst at Reason Foundation.