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New York to get help with traffic

A flood of federal cash will help the city fight overcrowding on, under and above the ground.

WASHINGTON - 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 there, you can fix it anywhere.

In the last year, the U.S. Transportation Department has unveiled a series of unprecedented plans to make all forms of New York City traffic move faster, and in doing so, they hope, 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 bring the Long Island Rail Road to Manhattan's East Side, and her agency has since promised an additional $1.3 billion to help build the first section of a new subway line along Second Avenue. Those are the two 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 traffic by charging people to drive into the busiest parts of Manhattan at peak times, something never tried before in a U.S. city.

And this week, she announced a plan to cap flights at the area's major airports, while officials keep working 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. If those big bets pay off, such measures will likely spread elsewhere.

"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.

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 E. Schumer (D., N.Y.), who is a big booster of expanded subways but who criticized the airspace plan and is noncommittal on congestion pricing. "We're the most crowded place in the country, and it certainly wouldn't be a logical place to start."

Federal transportation officials contend that 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 Transportation Department spokesman Brian Turmail.

The other common thread leads to the White House and President Bush'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," he said this week, "we need a more rational way of allocating gates amongst airlines, so that there is rational - a market-driven - system in place."