Building Better Connections to the World
If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: the world we live in is becoming an increasingly global place. Despite whatever retrenchment the Great Recession brought upon us over the past several years, people, businesses, and institutions today continue to expect easy access to the world’s leading metropolitan areas so they can build relationships and engage in exchanges of commerce and culture with a growing set of international partners.
As dean of PennDesign, I see how instrumental the infrastructure that connects Philadelphia to the world is to our overall mission as well as our day-to-day work. Whether it’s by helping facilitate partnerships with academic institutions and practitioners across the globe or by helping attract world class faculty based in part on the convenience of an Amtrak ride to Philadelphia from New York or DC, Greater Philadelphia’s global and national connections play a key role in furthering our students’ education and maintaining PennDesign’s position at the leading edge of thought and practice in design.
So I was pleased that the World Class Infrastructure Strategy Team placed particular emphasis on conversations about how to enhance the infrastructure that connects our region to the world. Making targeted investments to capitalize on Greater Philadelphia’s convenient location at the center of our country’s most populous region is smart strategy in a global world. To make the most of this advantage, we’re going to need to work together to develop Philadelphia International Airport into a truly world class facility and improve our intercity rail connections. We’ll also need to focus on the performance and efficiency of our goods movement infrastructure. Greater Philadelphia is within a day’s drive of 40% of the nation’s population; fully exploiting the logistical benefits of this locational advantage will require targeted efforts to enhance capacity on our freight rail networks.
I’ve seen firsthand how investment to enhance a region’s global and national connections can yield substantial dividends in terms of economic growth and opportunity. Working on projects to modernize and expand airport facilities in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tel Aviv provided me firsthand perspective on how high-performing and convenient air facilities helped cultivate and strengthen those regions’ ties to the global economy while catalyzing development locally. I’ve also seen how investment in intercity rail service in major metros can drive business activity and improve quality of life. China, the UK, and a growing number of other nations have doubled down on their commitments to high-speed intercity rail. The conversation about high-speed rail here in the US has been … slower, with ongoing – and at times heated – dialogue often focusing more on the estimated costs of improvements than the anticipated benefits.
Finding adequate and sustainable funding in an increasingly austere political environment is indeed a major challenge, but it is one that we are capable of overcoming. Here in Greater Philadelphia, following through on plans to upgrade PHL’s facilities is going to require a shared commitment on the part of our business and civic leaders and elected officials to secure necessary resources. Broad support will also be needed to advance rail improvements to the Northeast Corridor and other key investments that will help modernize our passenger and rail networks. Truly transformational investments in air and rail infrastructure will not come cheap, but the failure to implement a forward-looking vision for this infrastructure will make it difficult for our region to attract world class talent and capitalize on global business opportunities.
Despite these challenges, there’s much to be optimistic about. PHL today is served by 30 airlines with 600 daily flights to 120 domestic and international cities, and the addition of nonstop service to Doha and Sao Paolo signals growing interest from emerging metros in connecting with our region. US Airways’recent agreement with the City of Philadelphia on a two-year lease extension at PHL will help advance several key airport improvements. And, perhaps most significantly, the forthcoming implementation of the merger of US Airways and American Airlines stands to help bolster PHL’s role as a major hub for domestic and international flights.
On the intercity rail front, Amtrak ridership in our region has risen three times the rate of population growth since 1997, and 30th Street Station remains the third busiest rail station in the country. Amtrak is taking its plans to implement high-speed rail along the Northeast Corridor very seriously, despite crisis-level funding shortages and considerable opposition.
If we’re going to advance an agenda for World Class infrastructure in our region, we’ll need to find ways to build on these signs of progress and speak with a united regional voice about what we must focus on to enhance the infrastructure that connects Greater Philadelphia to the world. Our ability to follow through on this task will determine Greater Philadelphia’s standing in the global economy and influence the vitality and competitiveness of businesses and institutions across the region, with PennDesign being no exception.
Marilyn Jordan Taylor
Dean and Paley Professor
University of Pennsylvania School of Design