Taking the Long View
As I conclude this three-part look back at my two decades at the Economy League, I thought it would be important to highlight some of the infrastructure-related projects where the Economy League has played a crucial long-term stewardship role. When it comes to infrastructure, taking the long view is critical, as it’s not uncommon for a project to be completed decades after initial work and planning. The slow and sometimes dragged-out timelines that can be associated with major infrastructure investments are understandably frustrating for many – but not the Economy League. We’re in it for the long run.
That’s an increasingly rare posture in today’s instant gratification world. With information and knowledge available at a moment’s notice and so many things competing for our attention as we multi-task our way through every day, the expectation for things to get done immediately can lead to exasperation when things don’t happen as fast as we’d like them to.
That is why it has been fascinating to help lead an organization for the past 22 years that, by its very nature and history, has taken a long view of our region. We know that the speed and pace of economic and policy change, particularly in a fragmented, multi-state region, can seem glacial at times. But we also know that sticking to our guns is what it takes to advance some strategic investments that yield significant long-term benefits to Greater Philadelphia.
The decades-long effort to make a critical highway link between I-95 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike is one case in point. In 1999, the Economy League was asked by then-Congressman Jim Greenwood to do an analysis of the economic value of the proposed I-95/PA Turnpike interchange to Lower Bucks County and the Greater Philadelphia region. Connecting two major interstates in the center of our region that cross over each other, one heading north-south and the other east-west … sounds like a no-brainer, right?
But the reality is that no major infrastructure project, particularly a $1 billion construction project connecting two existing highways, is going to happen easily. And this one had already been on the drawing board for nearly 40 years – waiting for changes in federal guidelines that prohibited connecting a toll road to an interstate highway and being passed over by alternative proposals that would have bypassed the area completely. It had been the topic of myriad town hall meetings and debates over the years focused on the exact alignment and the difference it would make in the community.
When the Economy League was engaged to contribute its economic analysis to early planning efforts for the interchange, we decided that we couldn’t just do a report. If the local community was to make an informed decision on this potentially massive project, they needed to be engaged in a different way. So, we did it the Economy League way and made sure to engage a broad set of stakeholders in the conversation. We set up an advisory committee made up of local and regional business and community leaders to work with the team assembled by the Economy League to conduct its analysis.
What we were trying to do was demystify the black box of economic impact analysis. And we allowed the community leaders who would ultimately be most affected by the project to help design the research – providing their input and feedback on the assumptions, data, and projections used in our analysis.
Running a process like this takes more time. We could have plugged numbers into a model right away and come up with some estimated impacts, and many times that is what happens in studies like these. By choosing a more transparent and inclusive process to assess the potential impacts of this high-stakes project, several months were added to the project timeline. But, in the end, even if some disagreements remained in the community about whether the project should go forward, there were no arguments with the economic analysis that was produced. At the end of the day, there was consensus that the project would bring significant economic benefits to the Lower Bucks and Greater Philadelphia region.
Even with that consensus, construction began almost 16 years after the conclusion of the analysis. It still required extensive design and environmental impact analysis, public meetings and comments, and obtaining the funds to begin construction. Massive projects don’t happen overnight – they require long-term visions and patience to see all the way through. And the Economy League’s analysis and engagement was instrumental in greenlighting and funding this one.
Recently, the Economy League and Econsult Solutions, Inc. undertook a similar project on behalf of SEPTA to analyze the economic value of a new rail connection to the King of Prussia area. Again, we ran the numbers and did the economic analysis to understand what the potential economic value would be to the region, particularly how the added capacity would support both expanded economic activity and reduced travel times for workers in the KOP area. The analysis has been used as part of the public review process of the project, and is a crucial analytical input as SEPTA makes its case to the federal government for New Starts funding that could make the project a reality.
But once again, this $1 billion project is far from certain to happen and will require concerted civic action to obtain the funding necessary to complete it. As with the I-95/PA Turnpike project, the Economy League will now play a different role – working as a catalyst to bring together civic leadership in support of the funding effort. The Economy League is among just a handful of entities in our region built to support a project like this over the long haul – and it’s a role that we embrace.
As I conclude my journey with the Economy League, I realize more than ever how important it is to the region. It is rare to find an organization that combines high-quality research, cutting edge communications, and the ability to catalyze civic leadership within one entity. The Economy League is crucial to making our region work better, as is its approach to bringing together leaders to work together on solutions to complex issues that take time to address. It’s been my privilege to work with so many great leaders and with the incredible staff of the Economy League over these 22 years, and I look forward to watching, and working with, the Economy League from a new vantage point in the years to come.