When cities plan infrastructure projects, they often do so with one eye toward sustainability and another toward supporting economic growth, a trend that was the focus of the Washington-based National League of Cities' (NLC) recent "Building Cities, Building Futures" tour. While finding money for infrastructure projects of any kind can be challenging in an era of decreased revenue and budget cuts, experts say there are federal grants still available for communities interested in sustainability.

The Obama administration has tasked the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency to form The Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which focuses on transportation, housing and environmental issues, says Julia Pulidindi, NLC's senior associate for infrastructure. "Grants for projects which help promote sustainable development and ‘livability' primarily come from these three entities," Pulidindi says.

Some of the grant programs discussed on the Partnership for Sustainable Communities website include:

• EPA's Smart Growth Implementation Assistance Program, which provides technical assistance to help communities develop in ways that make them more resilient to natural hazards, increase economic growth, and use locally generated energy.
• EPA's The Building Blocks Program, which provides targeted technical assistance to communities to improve pedestrian access and safety, zoning codes, and housing and transportation options.
• DOT's TIGER Transportation Discretionary Grant Program for projects that will have a significant impact on the nation, a metropolitan area or a region.

Along with current grant opportunities, Pulidindi says, the federal transportation spending bill still under consideration in Congress could include grants, if it is approved or extended next year. "It seems to be they're going to be moving to a more streamlined bill that offers more opportunity for grants for local governments, as opposed to several different kinds of pots of money," she says.

In October 2010, Houston, one of the stops on the "Building Cities, Building Futures" tour along with Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago; and Los Angeles, received a three-year Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant from the partnership. The grant is funding work to create sustainability indicators and metrics that will guide future projects aimed at jointly addressing issues of housing, environmental protection and transportation, says Laura Spanjian, director of Houston's Office of Sustainability. "The Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant is an unprecedented opportunity for the Houston region to work together to develop plans for affordable and accessible transportation choices, lower the combined cost of transportation and housing, improve economic competitiveness and increase community revitalization," Spanjian says.