*A slightly modified version of this commentary appeared in the Gotham Gazette on July 11, 2005.
Three prime ministers and a queen descended on Singapore last week to lobby the International Olympic Committee on behalf of New York rivals’ bids to host the 2012 Olympics.
By contrast, President George W. Bush stayed away, appearing only briefly in a video, and neither did any other Bush administration officials travel to the island city-state.
Indeed, of the five cities competing for the prize, only New York lacked the obvious and vigorous backing of the nation it represented.
Which shouldn’t have been surprising.
To many New Yorkers, Washington’s inattention was typical—symbolic, in its small way, of the lack of federal support of the city that has been evident for at least a generation.
Once upon a time, federal aid—lots of it—built familiar landmarks like the Triborough Bridge and LaGuardia Airport, and created the city’s network of neighborhood parks. Likewise, massive flows of federal money helped fund the expressways and in the post-war years threw up the rows of hulking apartment buildings that rise all along the eastern edge of Manhattan or beside the Rockaway surf.
But that was then. Now, things are different, and Washington’s longstanding inattention is one reason why progress has been halting on so many New York-area issues whether rebuilding Ground Zero or housing newcomers.
Such indifference helps to explain New York’s inability to finish numerous transportation projects important to the city and the region—the Moynihan Train Station in the old Post Office Building; the Second Avenue subway; the East Side Access Project that would create a direct link between the Long Island Railroad and Grand Central Terminal. And it was in this tradition—the tradition of the Daily News headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead!”—that Republicans in Congress last year tried to rescind money allocated to Moynihan Station.
No wonder some New Yorkers now see themselves as simply on the wrong side of an anti-urban, anti-coastal, and anti-cosmopolitan majority in America. After all, that’s what they see in the sea of red that surrounds the blue islands in those glaring red-blue maps of the Electoral College vote in last fall’s presidential election.
But the truth, as we see it, is more nuanced, and more hopeful.
Granted, New Yorkers like to see themselves as unique and apart, connected to the United States only by the tiniest landmass at the northern end of the Bronx. But in fact New York remains at once embedded in the larger New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region and increasingly related to the nation’s other developing mega-regions.
The New York area’s jam-packed bridges and tunnels, for instance, testify to the power of connectedness. Commuters to Manhattan supported approximately $70 billion of New York City’s economic output in 2000, according to the Regional Plan Association, while for its part New York generates more than 40 percent of the region’s wages. Surely these interconnections can trump division.
At the same time, the emergence of an archipelago of huge, fast-growing “super-regions” across the nation has given New York a larger set of super-sized cousins—and potential allies. These new megalopolises—around Atlanta, in the Denver area, in South Florida—are coming increasingly to resemble (at least a little) the New York urban region in terms of their sheer size and diversity, and in their infrastructure needs.
In this sense, Phoenix and Dallas may soon rank almost as important as Albany, Trenton, and Hartford in what could become a canny new regional strategy for assuring that the tri-state region prevails.
So how might this work? How might New York and its region prevail, when they now struggle to scare up enough juice just to create a new transit crossing under the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York City, or get a rail-freight tunnel funded from New Jersey to Long Island?
We would suggest two approaches—two ways to transcend the balkanized local scrimmaging of authorities, borough presidents, and mayors, on the one hand, and the seemingly inhospitable calculus of the red-blue map on the other:
1. Look to the states
First, New York and tri-state residents should look much more than they have to the tri-state capitals—Albany, Trenton, and Hartford—and insist that they collaboratively advocate for and provide for the city’s and region’s needs.
Concern for the future of Amtrak, for example, has already drawn state leaders from across the tri-state region into successful common cause. So too has the need to protect tri-state air quality and watersheds enlisted all three states’ attorneys general in a multistate challenge to Bush administration regulations that exempt coal-fired power plants from tough controls on mercury pollution. And in the wake of the London terror attacks last week Governor M. Jodi Rell announced that Connecticut had joined New York Governor George E. Pataki and New Jersey Governor Richard J. Codey in a tri-state agreement allowing state troopers from each state patrol on the trains into New York City and retain their arrest powers.
In any event, the need is clear for a new, ever-more-robust emphasis on state collaboration within the region as a crucial response to federal inattention.
True, the slow progress of projects like the Trans Hudson Tunnel or the Cross Harbor Rail Freight Tunnel (whatever one thinks of those proposals) underscores how frequently regional initiatives fall victim to either the horse trading of Albany (or Hartford or Trenton) or bickering between the states.
But the fact remains that on many issues the states matter for more to the health and prosperity of their metropolitan areas than Washington does. Which is why New Yorkers and other tri-staters should insist that multi-state collaboration widen to address such common priorities as federal and non-federal housing policy; the defense of critical worker benefits like the earned income tax credit (EITC); and the region’s fundamental infrastructure for prosperity.
Imagine the creation of a regional, multi-state pool of capital dedicated to the preservation and modernization of the infrastructure—airports, ports, passenger rail, roads, bridges.
Or consider the founding of a new multi-state fund dedicated to the remediation and reclamation of polluted land along shared waterfronts.
Where would the money come from? It could come from a regional armistice on tax abatements and other government subsidies used to lure companies and firms from one side of the region to the other. Or perhaps the three states (with similarly motivated allies out West or in the South) should pile onto Felix Rohatyn’s recent proposal of a $100 billion federal trust fund, to be financed by special 50-year Treasury bonds, to finance high-priority state and local investment programs, including physical infrastructure.
In this way the region would take the lead in pressing for the restoration of the traditional federal-state commitment to investing in the physical and intellectual infrastructure of America’s regions.
2. Look to Emerging Super-Regions
But intra-regional collaboration—as important as it is—can only go so far. Beyond it, the Tri-State area needs to look outward, and locate common ground with other urban super-regions of the country in ways that confound popular perceptions of the political divide.
This, too, has already happened, to some extent, with the blunting of Bush administration efforts to defund Amtrak by a bipartisan confederation of Northeastern, Midwestern, and Southern representatives in the House last month.
But again, the opportunity is larger: The titanic demographic and development changes now sweeping the nation are creating massive “new” regions of shared interest.
Scholars like Rob Lang and Armando Carbonnel, after all, have identified from eight to 10 huge “megalopolises,” gargantuan region-scaled growth zones organized around major interstate highways across the country. These “megas” include, for example:
- the Phoenix metroplex
- the I-35 corridor in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas that encompasses a string of metropolitan areas running from San Antonio in the South through Dallas to Kansas City in the North
- Greater Atlanta and the Piedmont region
- the Colorado Front Range
- Houston, New Orleans, and the Gulf Coast
Such mega-regions now encompass more than 70 percent of the country’s population and extend into 35 states. They will add seven of every 10 new Americans to be added by 2040, three-quarters of the capital to be expended nationally on private real estate by then, and tilted to John Kerry by 51.6 percent to 48.4 for President Bush in 2004.
As such these newer conurbations represent a huge opportunity for alliance-building, in congress or on other fronts, whether on highway construction, workforce development, transit, or port and security activities.
Look at immigration patterns, for example. The immigrant gateways of the past 20 years include traditional places like New York City, Chicago and L.A. but also newer places like Charlotte and Atlanta and Houston and Phoenix. And guess what: Arizona’s congressional delegation—anchored by Sen. John McCain and Reps. Jeff Flake, Luis Guitierrez, and Jim Kolbe, is the driving force behind a sensible “temporary worker” proposal that (unlike President Bush’s version) would allow New York’s thousands of undocumented immigrants to keep working on three-year permits and enjoy other rights, while also providing them a clear path toward a green card.
Or take infrastructure needs, particularly New Yorkers’ interest in mass transit. As it happens, the newer, fast-growing cities of the Sun Belt are now having the same kinds of discussions around cores and corridors that the New York metropolis had 80 years ago. And they are engaging in the same sort of investing New York needs to. Colorado, for example, may have voted for Bush 52 to 47 percent in the last election, but during that same election, voters in the Denver metropolitan region overwhelmingly passed (58 to 42 percent) a referendum to raise $4.1 billion for a 118-mile light rail system. (Significantly, four counties that voted against Kerry supported the transit system.)
Or even take social policy. Our analysis of residential patterns of low-wage workers in the country shows an incredible confluence between the densely populated cities of the Northeast and Midwest and rural areas in the South. Listening to the political class, one would never realize that constituents of legislators in Mississippi have as high a stake in the policies that make work pay—the Earned Income Tax Credit, child care, and health care coverage—as residents of New York City, Newark, and Bridgeport, CT.
Or consider the needs of urban counties. America contains some 64 “older suburban” or “first suburban” counties—denser, longer-established suburbs (often in the Northeast) that now face truly “urban” challenges yet which frequently reside in a “policy blind-spot” because they are neither poor enough to qualify for most federal “urban” programs nor “new” enough to tap federal and state programs that focus on building new housing and infrastructure.
Predictably, this slice of America contains such familiar places as Nassau County, Essex and Hudson counties in New Jersey, and Fairfield County in Connecticut. What is less predictable, though, is the fact that dozens of these “urban” first suburbs now dot the rest of America, where Fulton County surrounding Atlanta, Harris adjacent to Houston, and of course Los Angeles County and Dade County, Fla. all stand as fellow “first suburban” communities. What is more, these 64 counties now house over 52 million people and comprise nearly 20 percent of the American population. That means that close to 50 percent of the American population—almost a majority of Americans—live in traditional central cities and five dozen or so urban counties.
In sum, metropolitan New York no longer stands alone in facing the sort of huge-scale urban challenges with which it constantly wrestles. Rather, a growing swath of America now shares such megapolitan struggles—and nascent common agenda around infrastructure, social policy, and competitiveness writ large.
And so leaders of the greater New York region should enlarge their political envelope. They should break out of a geographically confining notion of shared interest and define a new national map of regions that might well define new links of common cause that will make bold action on complicated issues more possible.
In that fashion, it would make great sense for New York’s business, civic, and political elites to open a sustained, structured, and purposeful dialogue with the leaders of America’s newer Sun Belt growth areas like the Dallas and Houston and Charlotte and Phoenix megaplexes.
Such dialogue would almost certainly yield a clear understanding that what unites these growing urban metropolises bulks much greater than what divides them, and in time it would likely buy the New York region new allies in national politics.
REDRAWING THE MAP
In the end, it’s becoming clear that while the red-blue map depicts an unfavorable Washington politics, it tells only part of the truth.
More accurate, particularly as the new mega-regions grow and urbanize over vast multi-county landscapes, is the so-called “purple map” produced by Robert Vanderbrei of Princeton University which shows, at the metropolitan or local scale, that far more of America consists of evenly split than sharply red or blue districts.
On this map, competitiveness, not one-party domination, is the norm. On this map, metro areas and mega-regions—with their more favorable political priorities and infrastructure needs—spread wider and wider and hold out opportunity.
And so Senator Charles Schumer was exactly right when he bemoaned the onset of a “culture of inertia” in Albany and New York recently, although the disease goes beyond the NIMBYism and “criticism” he fingered.
Beyond just parochialism and gridlock, New Yorkers are indulging in something much worse—pessimism. Yet that must change, if one of the world’s great megalopolises is to respond to the challenges being mounted by urban regions around the world, as they spend billions on new rail spines, economic development, and urban regeneration.
So: Instead of bemoaning the red-blue map, shouldn’t the New York region simply redraw it? By collaborating across state borders and finding common-cause with the nation’s other mega-regions, the New York super-region in that fashion really ought to be able to forge a new and powerful super-alignment that could transform current politics.