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Metro Message: Investing = Patriotism

Neal Peirce / Apr 22 2011

For Release Sunday, April 24, 2011
© 2011 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceNEW YORK — Let us plan for our future — not run from it. Let’s invest forward to stay at the global competitive edge in resilient metropolises, high-speed rail, world-leading schools and universities, advanced technology networks, opportunity tracks for our poor.

Anything less threatens a second-rate, declining America as China and other world powers ascend. Our government budget deficits are real, requiring tough action. But tea party-like pitches to eviscerate government are perilously wrong. Smart planning and smart public investment is the true American patriotism for this century.

You might expect those themes to reverberate at a national conference of liberal policy wonks. But instead, one could hear them emerging as several hundred leaders of the New York metropolitan region, corporate executives included, met for the 2011 assembly of that area’s Regional Plan Association (founded in 1922, the country’s first and largest).

The official theme this year was “Innovation and the Global City,” showcasing forward-looking projects and programs from cities across the globe.

London, for example, is using the 2012 Olympics as a way invest in green (i.e. energy-saving) transit expansion, new parks and open spaces, in a deliberate effort to reinvigorate a socially deprived part of the city. “We’re investing in human capital, the city’s DNA,” reported Ricky Burdett of the London School of Economics.

Singapore, bereft of natural resources and an economic backwater in the 1960s, has used its “people power,” with a premium on education and exploiting its position as a gateway city, to become one of the most successful metropolises on the planet.

Deluged with millions of new residents and clogged roadway traffic, some developing world cities are suffering four-to-five hour daily commutes. But Bogota, Colombia, has created systems of “cycleways” for poor residents to get about, plus a “Transmilenio” system for rapid bus transport on exclusive rights-of-way. The “BRT” model is now being emulated in developing cities worldwide.

In Beijing, fear of gridlock from skyrocketing private auto traffic has led the city to restrict new car registrations to 240,000 — down from the current 800,000 new vehicles a year.

Many world city regions once faced near-total economic collapse, among them Turin, Barcelona and Munich. Not to mention the deficit-whipped New York City of the 1970s, with a ravaged, graffiti-splattered subway system that eventually was revived through smartly-spent billions of recovery dollars and today carries twice the riders of 30 years ago.

The moral from the Regional Plan sessions: Cities and their metro regions are the driving force of the American economy. But as Nicholas You, former UN-HABITAT officer and board chair of the steering committee of the World Urban Campaign, warned: “Cities exist as parts of networks of cities: There’s real need for pro-city national and state government policies.”

Right now, the imbalanced budget cuts being driven by the ascendant House Republicans throw a long, ominous shadow over federal pro-city policies — most vividly their effort to terminate President Obama’s national high-speed rail initiative before it even leaves the station. The rejection of federal rapid rail funds by the new Republican governors of Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida underscores the intensely negative political setting.

But how ill-advised! Of course it’s right to question the timing, engineering, market, private sector co-financing of individual rapid rail projects. Yet America’s continuing strong, metro-focused population growth assures a century of growing “megaregions,” 200 to 600 miles across. The megaregions are too large and congested to transverse easily by car, too small for efficient air connection. Not just the Northeast Corridor, but California, the Midwest and other regions can and should grow with high-speed rail– if we just find the courage to build it.

Is progress possible in deficit-plagued times? Yes, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy told the Regional Plan meeting. His state faces the largest per capita deficit of any of the 50. Malloy is urging budget cuts of $1.8 billion, including heavy concessions by state employees. But his budget also raises revenues by $1.5 billion, including an increase in the state gas tax.

On the spending side, Malloy urges special focus on rebuilding Connecticut’s long-neglected rail system. And he’s as passionate about investment in science and education. “We are morally obliged to make the investment to stage an economy for 10 to 20 years from now — our future,” he told the audience.

But what, I asked Malloy subsequently, about the powerful new “cut-at-all-costs” theme in national politics? It’s always popular to be against taxes, he replied, and “politicized” unions add some problems for government activists.

But by making rail a “whipping boy in the national discussion,” Malloy suggested, today’s Republicans are risking “stunning overreach, because Americans understand rebuilding rail is in our national interest.”

More broadly, Malloy added: “It’s a dangerous proposition to say all public expenditures are wrong. It may be said for political purposes. But if people really mean it, it’s a sign of insanity.”


Neal Peirce’s e-mail is npeirce@citistates.com.

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