Image: People rush through Pennsylvania Station August 31, 2007 in New York City.
Stephen Chernin  /  Getty Images file
Common scene as people rush through Pennsylvania Station in New York City in this Aug. 30, 2007, file photo.
updated 12/21/2007 12:08:25 PM ET 2007-12-21T17:08:25

Grumpy New Yorkers accept certain terrible truths: Subways will be overcrowded, cars will sit in gridlock and flights will be delayed. Federal officials have lately taken a less fatalistic view: If you can fix traffic here, you can fix it anywhere.

In the last year, the Transportation Department unveiled a series of unprecedented plans to make all forms of New York City traffic move faster, and in doing so, they hope to offer solutions to other American cities struggling to make the planes, trains, and automobiles run on time.

First, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters pledged to deliver $2.6 billion to improve Long Island commuter trains. Then her agency promised another $1.3 billion for a new subway line. Those are the two single largest commitments the agency has ever made to individual transit projects.

Peters has also dangled $354 million to the city if it goes ahead with a congestion pricing plan to reduce auto traffic by charging tolls to drive into the busiest parts of Manhattan at peak times.

And just this week, she announced a new plan to cap flights at the area's major airports, while officials continue to work on a way to auction off to the highest bidder any future capacity at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

All together, billions of taxpayer and industry dollars are at stake for a number of largely untested methods to alter the transportation map of the nation's largest city.

"In the federal government, in the Bush administration, there's been a revolution in thinking," said Sam Schwartz, a former city commissioner better known as "Gridlock Sam" in the pages of the New York Daily News.

"New York is the battleground, and for many years, the federal government has been a roadblock" to easing auto traffic on city streets, said Schwartz. "Somehow, the message has finally gotten across."

Not everyone is sold.

"These are hare-brained schemes by ideologues run amok, and they're making New York the guinea pig," said Sen. Charles Schumer, who is a big booster of expanded subways but dislikes the air space plan and is noncommittal on congestion pricing.

Federal officials contend New York's particular brand of bumper-to-bumper backups — as reliable as a traffic update every 10 minutes on the radio — is the perfect place to start.

"The common thread, when it comes to the traffic volumes and air traffic volumes, is that New York is a preview, not an anomaly, of what you can expect" in other parts of the country, said DOT spokesman Brian Turmail.

The other common thread leads to the White House, and the president's firm belief that the old-fashioned forces of capitalism can fix much of what ails modern infrastructure, including overcrowded runways.

"The truth of the matter is, we need a more rational way of allocating gates amongst airlines, so that there is rational — a market-driven system in place," President Bush said earlier this week.

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