State DOTs recognize benefits of supporting local land use planning

By Chris McCahill

As part of a new grant program, the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) recently funded three local projects aimed at better coordinating transportation and land use decisions. VTrans has partnered with the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development to award approximately $200,000 each year for communities to develop plans, policies, and funding mechanisms that support local transportation options and reduce long-term infrastructure demands throughout the state.

According to Vermont’s newly appointed Transportation Secretary, Sue Minter, this program can help communities “plan and grow in a way that makes it easier for Vermonters to walk, bike, or take transit,” thereby giving them more options in meeting their daily needs, boosting local economies, and reducing energy consumption.

In addition, better coordinated land use decisions can help state agencies avoid making costly transportation improvements over the long run. That is one of the main goals of Tennessee DOT’s similar grant program and its community planning division.

John Schroer, the Commissioner of TDOT, describes the motivation for their program in a video from last year that recently gained new attention online. He explains, “I found when I moved into this position, a lot of cities did a poor job of long-range planning — in how they did zoning, in how they approved projects — and took very little consideration into the transportation mode. Oftentimes those cities would then call us up and say, ‘We’ve got a problem. You need to help us fix it.’” To avoid those situations and save the state money, the agency has elected to have a team of planners working directly with communities as they make land use and development decisions.

Schroer cites the common issue of schools being built on inexpensive land with limited transportation options. That was the case in Northfield, Minnesota, which is now seeking close to $500,000 from the state to study transportation improvement options after building a new school at the edge of town and then approving multiple poorly connected subdivisions nearby. This pattern is not unique to any particular state or region, but it is often avoidable.

In Vermont, communities may wish to learn from the city of Burlington, whose zoning codes support sustainable land use patterns and transportation choices better than most cities in the country, according to new research from the University of Oregon and the University of Wisconsin. Most cities still have a long way to go. That research also found that the average city includes only 20 percent of all the available regulatory measures for achieving sustainable growth, and even Burlington, which scored highest, includes a little more than one-third.

Chris McCahill is a Senior Associate at SSTI.