Peters proposes federal law to encourage dense housing along transit lines
Rep. Scott Peters unveiled proposed federal legislation Tuesday that could simultaneously boost housing production and fight climate change by encouraging dense housing projects along new transit lines across the nation.
The legislation would make federal contributions to transit projects contingent on whether local governments commit beforehand to allowing dense housing nearby, which would make strong ridership more likely.
“This bill will maximize federal investment in transit and increase housing options for families across the country,” said Peters (D-San Diego) during a news conference held along a new trolley line under construction in La Jolla. “On top of that, we can protect our environment by increasing transit ridership and getting more cars off the road.”
The legislation could accelerate progress on some San Diego transit projects, such as an airport transit hub proposed near Pacific Highway by the San Diego Association of Governments, the county’s regional planning agency.
The proposed hub, which some call “San Diego Grand Central Station,” would include 6,000 to 7,000 nearby housing units, said Hasan Ikhrata, SANDAG’s executive director.
Under current federal policy, the criteria that determine which transit projects get federal funding don’t include any commitment to nearby housing projects.
Peters said his legislation, if it had been in place years ago, would likely have forced San Diego officials to connect the trolley to San Diego International Airport in order to receive federal funding.
He said it also would help the federal government avoid contributing to less appealing projects, such as a recent proposal in North Carolina to build a transit line that wouldn’t connect to a nearby airport or a technology business park.
“The federal government ought to ask ‘why aren’t you building this trolley line where it needs to go,’” Peter said of the North Carolina proposal.
The legislation, called the “Build More Housing Near Transit Act,” would change the rating criteria for the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program, which funds transit projects like commuter rail, light rail and bus rapid transit.
San Diego’s new $2 billion trolley extension from Old Town to La Jolla, which is scheduled to begin operation in 2021, received $1 billion from the program.
Now that the trolley line is under construction, San Diego officials are incrementally approving new growth blueprints for neighborhoods along it so that dense housing projects can be built.
Under Peters’ proposed legislation, cities and counties would need to have policies in place allowing dense housing before any federal funding would be provided.
“It will shift the discussion of land-use policy earlier in the planning process,” Peters said, crediting local nonprofit Circulate San Diego with helping him craft the proposed law.
Peters said the idea was inspired by how the federal government handled its contribution to San Diego’s new trolley line.
“I noticed the federal government never asked us what we would build on the trolley line to make sure that people would actually ride it,” he said. “We ought to make sure our federal dollars are spent in a way that’s actually going to generate ridership on these projects and get people out of their cars and relieve congestion.”
The legislation would not increase how much federal money is available for transit projects. It would only shift how that money is doled out.
Peters said the bill has significant bipartisan support, including Republican co-sponsors, because it makes sense.
“I’m pretty optimistic about this getting passed because it can be seen as both an environmental issue and a taxpayer protection issue, so it has a lot of appeal for everyone,” he said.
County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said at the news conference that the proposed law would be a major boost to San Diego.
“When transportation and housing go together in the right direction, we can lower housing costs, we can reduce traffic congestion, we can lower greenhouse gas emissions and we can build the region of the future,” Fletcher said.