One Megalopolis, with High-Speed Rail for All

Event: Thinking Bigger: New York and Transportation in the Northeast Megaregion
Location: NYU Kimmel Center, 11.13.07
Speakers: Allison C. de Cerreño, PhD — Director, NYU Wagner Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management; Jerome Lewis, PhD — Director, Institute of Public Administration, University of Delaware; Robert D. Yaro — President, Regional Plan Association; Joel P. Ettinger — Executive Director, NY Metropolitan Transportation Council; Karen Ray — Deputy Commissioner, NY State Department of Transportation; Kris Kolluri — Commissioner, NJ Department of Transportation and Chairman, NJ Transit; Barry Seymour — Executive Director, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission; Rae Rosen — Senior Economist and Officer, Federal Reserve Bank of NY; George Schoener — Director, I-95 Coalition; Anne Stubbs — Executive Director, Coalition of Northeast Governors; Petra Todorovich — Director, America 2050, Regional Plan Association; Mark S. Schweiker — President and CEO, Greater Philadelphia Area Chamber of Commerce; Paul Bea — Government Relations Advisor, PHB Public Affairs; John Bennett — Chief, Business Strategy, Amtrak; Jean-Paul Rodrigue, PhD — Associate Professor, Hofstra University; Mark Strauss, AICP, FAIA — Principal, FXFowle Architects; Lou Venech — Senior Manager of Transportation Policy and Development, Port Authority of NY and NJ
Organizers: NYU Wagner Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management; NY Metropolitan Transportation Council; Metropolitan Transportation Authority; Port Authority of NY and NJ; University Transportation Research Center, Region 2; AIANY; Regional Plan Association; University of Delaware Institute of Public Administration; Wagner Transportation Association

Amtrak Regional Line

Amtrak’s Regional Line outperforms all others nationwide.

Courtesy amtrak.com

Our transportation system features complexity and interdependence but little coherent planning. The nation — especially in the densest Northeast region — allows intolerable road congestion, subsidizes motor vehicles so that large parts of the nation are essentially uni-modal, and leaves its infrastructure to decay (often fatally, as in the Minneapolis I-35W bridge collapse). For a useful insight into U.S. transportation policy, president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Area Chamber of Commerce Mark Schweiker borrowed a line from Yogi Berra: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.”

It’s been 46 years since geographer Jean Gottmann identified the region between Boston and Washington as a single “megalopolis,” noted Allison de Cerreño, PhD, director of NYU Wagner Rudin Center for Transportaion Policy and Mangement. The area has kept growing, but the infrastructure gap pales in comparison to its European and Asian equivalents. High-speed rail systems overseas are on their second or third generation, while the U.S. flagship system Acela has a maximum speed far below its foreign competitors’. Still, the Northeast region outperforms the rest of the U.S.; many of the transport specialists at the conference connected the area’s density to its economic vigor. NJ Department of Transportation commissioner Kris Kolluri calculated that the Northeast generates 10 times the gross domestic product per square mile than any other region.

Regional Plan Association representatives Robert Yaro and Petra Todorovich documented both the potential advantages of a Northeast-style system with a prominent rail component and a growth management skewed to sprawl zones. The Northeast has 49 million people (17% of the U.S. population on 2% of its land) and a $2.4 trillion economy that, as Yaro pointed out, would be the world’s fifth or sixth largest if analyzed independently.

Puzzlingly, though, the rest of the country isn’t following the Northeast’s lead. Multi-modal transportation (rail, air, bus rapid transit, and aquatic, as well as automotive and trucking) has economic and environmental advantages that planners find indispensable, but an upgraded rail system is so far off Washington’s radar that the White House has tried to zero out Amtrak and break off the Northeast Corridor. With little help from the federal government, several panelists emphasized, Northeastern states would do well to defend common interests: high environmental standards, smart growth, infrastructural repair, and balance among modes as well as adequate Amtrak funding.

Increasing regional integration means that benefits to one location often result from spending in another. Region-wide organizations like the I-95 Corridor and the new Business Alliance for Northeast Mobility are recognizing that critical policy priorities outweigh local struggles over size. A rough consensus appears to view high-speed intercity rail (in Yaro’s succinct description, “an Acela that works”) as the transformative technology of choice.

Mark Strauss, AICP, FAIA, principal at FXFowle Architects, emphasized the importance of reaching the general public with a critical message: that “density is not a four-letter word.” Transit-oriented development isn’t a new or foreign concept, he stressed; it’s how cities like New York and Philadelphia historically took shape and built economic strength. And it’s helping reanimate towns like Beacon, NY, where a recent transit-centered RFP attracted interest from 80 developers in five days. Transport geographer Jean-Paul Rodrigue, in contrast, offered an analysis based on long-brewing financial crises, commenting that “nobody has it right.” Whether the future resembles Strauss’s vision of revitalized rail-corridor cities or Rodrigue’s warning of a generally free-falling economy, with foreign investors scooping up undervalued American assets, may have a lot to do with how convincingly the progressive transportation community can make its case to the public and the pols.