Crossing Borders, Making Progress
The 'Chesapeake Crescent' Breakthrough
Regional politicians finally decide to cooperate on environmental issues. By a syndicated writer in the Washington Post Writers Group, it was for release February 17, 2008.
by Neal PeirceA Chesapeake Crescent organization, pushed by business forces and enthusiastically supported by the governors of Maryland and Virginia and the mayor of the nation’s Capital City, has just been announced. It could be a national example of collaboration across city and state lines, tied to 21st century priorities of radical energy savings, compact, transit-accessible development, and a sustainable environment.
There’s no doubt that the initiative marks an amazing shift. Quibbling, tax-base stealing, and big job-residence mismatches plagued the National Capital Region of Washington, suburban Northern Virginia, and Maryland over the last half of the 20th century. Even the supposedly progressive Clinton Administration failed to lift a finger to push more coherent regional development.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon, a regional Emergency Preparedness Council, based in the region’s Council of Governments and endowed with prominent business support, was formed. But a hopeful “Envision Greater Washington” effort, begun in 2005 and focused on less sprawling growth in a region second only to Los Angeles in traffic congestion, failed to gain traction.
George Vradenburg, the former executive of AOL, CBS Inc. and Fox Inc. who was a key leader of “Envision” and now the Chesapeake Crescent, explains: It’s just too tough to change behavior of local governments. Why? They instinctively chase commercial jobs for their rich revenue base, and drag their heals on less-tax-lucrative housing opportunities. So housing gets pushed out, with sprawl clogging the roads -- an unsustainable growth pattern. The “tragedy,” Vradenburg adds, is that local leaders know the bad result but simply “can’t change their behaviors.”
So Vradenburg and his colleague Herb Miller, CEO of a development firm that’s built major Washington projects, decided on a radical shift. They approached Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty to argue that their total jurisdictions, not just Washington and its immediate environs, need to coalesce for global competitiveness.
The main reason: the jurisdictions’ shared, vital interest in their biggest single employer -- Uncle Sam. In fact, the federal government’s first, second, and third largest employment centers anywhere are in Greater Washington, Baltimore and Norfolk. Federal agencies are having difficulty recruiting people to the region because of congestion and high housing prices.
But if the imaginative new answers are found -- such as creating transit town centers up and down the I-95 corridor, from northeasternmost Maryland to Richmond, Norfolk and the Hampton Roads area in Virginia -- then there’s a chance to create housing that is affordable, commute-accessible to federal work centers, but doesn’t clog the roads further.
Lining up the financing, rail service, and support will be a formidable challenge. But the governors at least grasp the need for new answers. Virginia’s Kaine: “In the 21st century economy, we know that regions, not artificial political boundaries, compete for talent and capital.” Or Maryland’s O’Malley: Government and business together need “to expand our definition of community beyond any one metro area.”
Smart energy innovations can be a big driver of regional competitiveness -- indeed an issue potentially “bigger than the Internet,” says Vradenburg, pointing to global demand as emergent nations drive up oil costs, the national security need to reduce US oil use accelerates, and political pressure mounts to respond to climate change through sharply reduced fossil fuel use.
“Greening” of office buildings with energy retrofits can save $3.6 billion yearly in the immediate Washington area alone. The capital markets firm Hannon Armstrong, in partnership with Virginia Tech and Pepco, a local utility, has committed $500 million to finance private office building energy efficiency programs. The investment will be paid back entirely from the energy savings, with no up-front investment by the owner. The same could be done for government buildings, with immense greenhouse gas emission cuts, notes Vradenburg.
The states could also create big scale economies in combined efforts to capture power from wind off the Chesapeake Bay, or tidal power from the ocean. Or work on shared biofuels generating capacity. Or promote plug-in hybrid vehicles, expected to be commercially available in 2010, with utilities leveling their power load without added carbon emissions. How? By loading power into cars parked at home garages at night, then reverse the flow to withdraw the electricity from the vehicles parked in work-site garages during daytime hours when there’s heavy air-conditioning demand.
The intriguing idea here: applying an entrepreneurial and imaginative mindset to state policy-making. In the process accruing big benefits back to the major metro regions, where the business (and university and technical lab) skills to expand the new ideas are rooted.
Then imagine expanding such approaches to such issues as workforce training (two-thirds of today’s federal workers are baby boomers who will retire in the next decade). Focused regional-based business interest won’t easily solve such challenges. But it can open minds, spark fresh debates, new approaches. Precisely what these challenging times demand.
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