Raleigh-Durham to Charlotte to Atlanta and on to Birmingham – the southeastern megaregion remains a soup of disconnected cities. Historically speaking, it’s been that way ever since the Civil War obliterated southern infrastructure and the band-aids of reconstruction merely healed wounds to keep essential commodities flowing to major ports – at the time, New Orleans and north to New York City.
Today, as we envision a future of massive cities covering two thirds of the earth by 2050, the race for efficient infrastructure is just as important to the economy now as the space race was for cold war dominance in the 1960s. And speaking of the 1960s, a time when the federal government focused squarely on its impoverished, yet growing cities, Maria Saporta from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution argues that these old urban policies represent fractions of what needs to be considered today and that, as many have also argued, the shift from suburbia to city-based wealth makes mobility and connection the first priority for urban revitalization.
-A lot has changed since then…
For readers of Next American City and other urban-focused publications, these arguments are nothing new. What is new is that this argument is becoming the news. Columnists are starting to peel their eyes off of skyrocketing gas prices, abandoning the wait for the buck-o-five gallon and a smarter President Bush, and accepting that this is life in modern America. To dial down the rhetoric, experts cited in Saporta’s artcle like Catherine Ross, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development, have realized that the southeastern United States faces the biggest challenge because for the last seven years, the government has been a little stupid:
“Back in 2001, more than a dozen chambers of commerce in the Southeast formed an alliance to push the development of high-speed rail between the major cities. The Southeastern Economic Alliance was housed at the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and provided an unusual level of cooperation among cities that often compete against each other when trying to attract companies. In the past couple of years, that effort has been dormant as the federal government has been reluctant to make a major investment in high-speed rail. But that could change after the November elections.” Maria Saporta, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.” target=”_blank”> Maria Saporta, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Ahh, the 2008 presidential elections – when America will want to talk about making money again instead of the moral obligation to assist the United Arab Emirates in handing them the money they need to build their infrastructure and accrue unfathomable debts with China and Japan. Solid red states in the bible belt are now turning purple at the fact that the megaregion is lagging and that the job market is disappearing. But are Democrats proposing anything new themselves?
Sen. Barack Obama, on his website, says he will address the infrastructure challenge by creating a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank to expand and enhance, not supplant, existing federal transportation investments: “This independent entity will be directed to invest in our nation’s most challenging transportation infrastructure needs. The Bank will receive an infusion of federal money, $60 billion over 10 years, to provide financing to transportation infrastructure projects across the nation. These projects will create up to two million new direct and indirect jobs per year and stimulate approximately $35 billion per year in new economic activity.”
Sen. John McCain, however, mentions nothing about the issue of connecting cities on his website, focusing on tax cuts for employers in the hopes that the good nature of the American businessman will hire John and Jane Q. Taxpayer and install programs to assist them with their 40 minute commute. In other words, it’s the same old same old for cities like Birmingham, Charlotte and Atlanta – no change or consideration for this dying economic sector.
Perhaps “old” is the key word here. Suburbia is over-the-hill. Suburban-centered economic thinking is old enough to be your grandfather. For the South, new ideas like high-speed rail to connect the megaregion’s major cities could be the perfect answer. The system would maintain the close-knit small town communities essential to Southern culture while giving professionals more options and opportunities for jobs. California has been trying to do this for years, without progress.
Another form of infrastructure that needs to find its way south is communication technology – high speed internet capability in rural areas. The telephone communication infrastructure in places like Northern Florida is over 25 years old. Some areas in the deep south are lucky to have dial-up access. With poverty in the extreme and the rise of the telecommute due to gas prices, you’re sure to see communication companies battling it out for contracts.
Contrary to the belief of the news media, southerners aren’t stupid to the issues of connectivity. They love railroads and communication just as much as any American. Tell them that we’re being outrun by countries like India, China and France and watch them fire up their 56k modems and gas-guzzling F150s to find a way to catch up.