There hasn’t been a lot of cooperation in Congress lately, but members on both sides of the aisle should agree on a piece of legislation introduced last week.
Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J.; James M. Inhofe, R-Okla.; Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho; and Tom Udall, D-N.M., are championing the Brownfields Utilization, Investment and Local Development (BUILD) Act of 2013, which would reauthorize the Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields program. This successful program supports economic development, leverages private funds, adds value to neighborhoods and transforms revenue-draining abandoned property into tax-producing assets.
Today it is estimated that more than 450,000 sites — known as brownfields — in the United States are contaminated and abandoned. Nearly every community in the country has at least one such site. At an average of 6.5 acres each, that’s 4,570 square miles of contaminated land across the country. These properties blight neighborhoods, breed disinvestment and impose a cost on local governments and their taxpayers. Cleaning up these sites can be cost prohibitive for public agencies and private developers alike.
That’s why the BUILD Act is so important. If passed, the bill would help local governments and other entities to clean up and revitalize brownfield sites. When done correctly, brownfields restoration drives economic growth while giving local governments the flexibility to pursue the projects they need the most. Transforming a community’s financial sinkhole into a new business or residential building should be a no-brainer.
We can see brownfields successes in places like Oklahoma City, which received a federal loan to clean up and restore the Skirvin Hotel located downtown. A $717,000 loan from the Brownfields Revolving Loan Funds together with a Community Development Block Grant leveraged $56 million in total funds. The restored Skirvin exceeded projected occupancy rates and financial projections and serves as a model of successful public-private cooperation.
Admittedly, brownfields restoration isn’t the hottest topic on the Hill right now. It doesn’t have the political implications and ramifications of budget cuts; it isn’t embroiled in disagreement like tax reform; and it doesn’t get the press of gun safety.
It is instead that rarest of Washington creatures, a bipartisan solution to a specific problem that should pass today with little to no opposition.
The BUILD Act is a powerful tool, and would make restoration efforts more flexible and easier to achieve. It expands nonprofit eligibility to receive brownfields grants, and makes the process simpler for smaller towns and cities. It also raises the limit for site remediation grants from $200,000 to $500,000 per site. Doubling the buying power and increasing the ease of use back home is a win for everyone — Congress, local governments, business owners and taxpayers.
Lautenberg and Inhofe’s legislation stands to benefit hundreds of hurting towns and cities across the nation. This bill is a lifeline to communities that are struggling to overcome blight and contamination at abandoned industrial sites. And it will work in every community — big or small, urban or rural — re-positioning vacant properties to create new engines of economic growth.
The BUILD Act can’t sit on the sidelines — its economic implications are just too great. Every day, in every town, vacant lots and abandoned buildings are waiting to be rebuilt. It might be easy for something like the BUILD Act to get lost in the Washington shuffle, but members of Congress owe it to the American people to take action now.
Geoff Anderson is president and CEO of Smart Growth America.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.