City Hall cannot be the sole driver of policy and innovation, even the staunchest local proponents caution. Many municipalities are worried about street lights and police pay. They don't have the resources to map out a comprehensive climate or energy policy.
"The towns that do have really moved the ball," said Kevin McCarty, managing director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. But "many cities are in budget crises. They just don't have the time and money."
Denver makes a good case study.
Last summer the Conference lauded the best climate-protection efforts from the nation's cities. The Denver metro area took top honors for an ambitious program, dubbed FasTracks, to expand light rail and encourage smart growth.
And the plan was ambitious: Voters in an eight-county region had agreed in 2004 to a 12-year plan, dubbed Fastracks. It would add 119 miles of light- and commuter rail, open 31 new park-n-ride lots, build 57 new transit stations, expand bus service, redevelop downtown Denver and the land around 51 of the 57 new stops toward transit-oriented housing and businesses. To pay the $4.7 billion price tag, voters OK'd a 0.4 percent sales tax hike.
Then the recession hit. Project estimates understated the cost by half. Overly rosy projections made the tax hike inadequate to cover costs. Regional consensus is in danger of fragmenting as municipalities bicker over trimming costs and raising money. The Regional Transportation District needs an additional 0.4 percent sales tax jump to complete the project by 2017.
"What has happened to the FasTracks program from a financial standpoint is not unique," said Scott Reed, the Transportation District's assistant general manager for public affairs. "The entire nation is seeing that same type of financial challenge."
But local politicians say they get it. They feel a greater sense of urgency than their national counterparts. And they're closer to both the impacts of climate change and the economics of energy reform.