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Old 03-12-2007, 11:53 PM   #1
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A Unified Northeast Corridor?

From the Houston Chronicle:

March 11, 2007, 6:55PM
Philadelphia Story: The Northeast plots a comeback

By NEAL PEIRCE

PHILADELPHIA ? To many people across America, the historic Northeast Corridor? Maine to Virginia ? has an old, cold, crowded image. But could it be young, green and creative, a cutting-edge region of 21st-century America?

That question, posed by Petra Todorovich of the New York Regional Plan Association, engaged a Northeast Climate and Competitiveness Summit convened here March 2.

A close geographic match to many of the 13 colonies that formed the United States more than 200 years ago, the Northeast Corridor today is 50 million people strong and can boast a $2.7 trillion economy, 27 percent of the nation's output. In finance, media, health care and higher education, it still trumps many newer regions of the nation.

But there are serious threats. A high cost of living makes it tough for firms to attract talented workers. Climate change, including rising seas and storm surges, threatens the Atlantic coastline. The environment is imperiled by sprawling growth that in recent decades has consumed as much space, including vast stretches of open land and farms, as the prior three centuries of settlement. Washington, New York and Boston may seem to be thriving, but not such cities as Philadelphia, Baltimore, Newark, N.J., and Bridgeport, Conn.

The 200 summit attendees, including two nationally known former governors ? Massachusetts' Michael Dukakis and Maryland's Parris Glendening ? reached an audacious conclusion. Projected to grow by 18 million people in the next decades, the Northeast states need to coalesce, with joint goals and programs, if the region is to compete globally and offer an attractive place to live and work. The chief competition is no longer simply with the Midwest or California. Rather, it is with regions ranging from China's Pearl River Delta to Europe's London-to-Milan corridor.

This means that occasional, small-bore collaborations won't suffice. Historic intraregional rivalries need to take a back seat.

The compelling new agenda, defined at Philadelphia: how these Northeastern states coalesce to create and expand state-of-the-art transportation choices, reduce perilous greenhouse gas emissions, and protect such environmental treasures, critical to the region's survival, such as the Appalachian highlands and the Chesapeake Bay.

Top on the agenda: radical expansion of rail service to allow for high-speed trains competitive with new world standards, plus expanded lines to accommodate massive new freight demands. Auto and truck traffic is close to congealing around every metro area; road stretches such as I-95 are often at a standstill; truck traffic on the crowded New Jersey Turnpike is increasing an unsustainable 3 percent a year.

Dukakis, a former vice chair of Amtrak, trumpeted welcome news for the Northeast: "We have the best rail Congress in my lifetime." Top evidence: New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg's bill to infuse close to $20 billion into new Amtrak equipment over six years, plus repairing the Northeast Corridor's dangerously outmoded tunnels, track and catenary wires.

France, noted Dukakis, is spending 20 times per capita on rail as the U.S.; new funding of $3 billion to $4 billion a year, combined with state collaboration, "can get us cracking," building a quality nationwide rail network for less cost than a week or two of the Iraq War.

Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, came to Philadelphia to strike the same note. China, he noted, is building hundreds of miles of high-speed rail; France has a $6.8 billion expansion of its famed TVG system; Denmark is expending $5.4 billion on upgraded high-speed rail ? but the Bush administration would spend just $900 million, in practical effect a shutdown budget.

Oberstar promised his committee would rewrite the organic act of Amtrak, endorsing regional high-speed rail systems that could divert traffic both from roads and short-distance air hops.

A pro-rail, pro-transit future, the Philadelphia conferees agreed, dovetails closely with restraining new sprawl, fostering radical energy saving, cutting carbon emissions and protecting the region's natural areas (its "green lungs") and great water resources.

Douglas Foy, former director of commonwealth development under Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, focused on the potential of new state building codes to cut back on enormous energy use and inefficiency in buildings. The new vision, said Foy: the urbanized Northeast corridor "as the carbon, smart growth, transit leader of America."

But for true breakthroughs, said Glendening, the time is at hand for the region's governors, and the mayor of Washington, to "think outside the box," perhaps undertake a common "visioning" process on how this mega-region develops, even consider a regional fund for major transportation and conservation initiatives.

Would independent states ever do that? It's a long stretch. But the timeliness is beyond question.

Peirce is a syndicated columnist who specializes in city and state affairs. (nrp@citistates.com)
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