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Connect to survive

Michael Gallis’ map is pretty stark.

Over vast stretches of the western United States, there are big dots, representing population centers, separated by hundreds of miles of space. Only a few thin ribbons of highway connect those dots.

This, according to Gallis, is not a good thing.

“Economy depends on interactions,” Gallis said at a meeting last week of the Western Governors’ Association, held at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in CityCenter.

The idea of the “island metropolis” no longer works in a world that’s increasingly interconnected, and one in which the United States has seen its share of wealth decline as other cities and countries are on the rise. To compete, we need to connect as a region and stop competing as individual cities, Gallis argues.

“The issue of competition is real,” he said.

That’s one reason why California authorities are pushing for high-speed rail to connect economic powerhouses such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, and why it’s important to build freeways such as the proposed Interstate 11 to better connect Phoenix and Las Vegas.

In fact, it’s one of the main reasons the interstate highway system was built in the first place: In addition to the ability to move troops and equipment in the event of invasion, those vast ribbons of concrete also established economic links that spurred commerce. (In fact, before the Transportation Department was created in 1966, the Department of Commerce oversaw road building, Gallis said. “We don’t build roads for the fun of driving around,” he added.)

Tom Skancke, a transportation expert who’s now in charge of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, underscored Gallis’ points: “Our competition is the world,” he said.

An example of the kind of cooperation Gallis and Skancke see is Interstate 95, the highway that links Miami all the way to Canada. Cities and states along that corridor act in unison when it comes to gathering federal dollars for the road, believing that every dollar spent — even if it’s in another state or town — helps them all.

“We could follow that model and make the intermountain West one of the most powerful coalitions in the entire country,” Skancke said, challenging the governors of Idaho, Montana, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming to join with a group called the Western Regional Alliance that’s pushing for more economic connections and cooperation between western states.

Key to solving that problem is roads: “What we have is a serious surface transportation problem that we’re going to have to face,” Gallis said. Interstate 15, for example, is seriously clogged between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, as any weekend gambler can attest. That interferes with the movement of goods from ports in San Diego, Long Beach and Los Angeles to points east and north, including Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Denver.

Another key link: I-11, a priority for many in Las Vegas, including the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, which has led delegations to Washington, D.C., to stress the importance of building that link. (The freeway has been officially designated, but money for actually building it has yet to be found.) Ultimately, the idea is to build a strong link all the way from Mexico to Canada, a link that would pass right through Las Vegas.

But Gallis said freeways aren’t the only solution: High-speed rail — fast trains with few stops between major economic centers — could be an important component for moving goods and people around the West, too.

What to build, and, just as important, how to fund it, will be key questions going forward. Skancke says a vehicle miles traveled tax must ultimately replace the fuel tax, as cars and trucks become more efficient and use less gasoline. But one thing is certain: The increasingly connected cities in other countries are working on it, too.

“Become the world center for finance, trade and culture in the 21st century,” is not the motto of New York City, Chicago or Los Angeles. According to Gallis, it’s the motto of Shanghai, China.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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