Ever wondered how governments make decisions? On the local, state or federal level, who decides which projects are funded and in what order? How much for each project?

The answers to these questions become even more critical when all communities across the country are vying for limited dollars to stimulate their local economies through projects like road repairs, revitalizing blighted properties or installing much-needed sewers.

Distributing resources for these competing projects becomes a matter of prioritizing. In the past, this has usually meant that Long Island - and particularly Long Island's communities of color - haven't received a fair share of resources; our two counties are often perceived as uniformly wealthy. But recent changes through a federal initiative have the potential to reverse those trends.

Last June, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency joined together to form the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. This unprecedented initiative coordinates federal housing, transportation and environmental investments; protects public health and the environment; promotes equitable development; and helps address the challenges of climate change.

This initiative is a potential game-changer for Long Island. For one thing, the suburbs are a specific target for the partnership's resources. For years, federal and state policies and programs have focused on central cities, and to some extent rural areas, with a blind spot for the suburbs.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Long Island and other suburbs are often mistaken as places with little need and an abundance of resources to take care of things themselves. But as Long Islanders have known for years - and the recent economic downturn has accentuated - there are deep pockets of poverty here, and resources are stretched thin to cover budget cuts and increasing needs.

The new partnership's focus on sustainable development is also encouraging. The term "sustainability" is thrown around a lot, meaning a variety of green things. The partnership defines it to include economic competitiveness, environmental health and equity - access to opportunities for things like jobs and transit for minority communities - to help determine which projects are funded. The inclusion of equity is critical to undo years of neglect and to ameliorate disinvestment from these communities. Only when there is a purposeful directing of dollars to communities of color can we hope to create a region where your ZIP code and/or school district doesn't dictate the value of your home and your future prospects.

We've all experienced the feeling that government agencies work in silos. The Partnership for Sustainable Communities is a critical initiative to enable HUD, DOT and EPA to work in a purposefully coordinated way. As a part of this, a number of pilot programs are in the works. Earlier this month, the Clean Water State Revolving Fund Pilot was announced. New York is one of three states selected to receive assistance to ensure that water infrastructure investments are coordinated with transportation projects so roads don't need to be torn up twice. It's an important opportunity for Long Island, which needs sewers to revitalize downtowns throughout Suffolk County.

While hardly a cure-all for suburban ailments, the Partnership for Sustainable Communities has the potential to increase resources and support to Long Island's most distressed communities. As areas across the country compete for funds, that's good news for our too-long overlooked neighbors.