Arizona Needs to get in the Federal Game

November 20, 2008

For several years, we and others at Arizona State University have been describing the rise of the Sun Corridor – the vast swath of urban space that sweeps from Prescott through Phoenix and Pinal County and down through Tucson to Nogales.

Now, it’s time to take the next step.

With a new president and Congress set to take office, it’s time for Sun Corridor leaders to talk federal policy. In short, it’s time to get in the game.

Which is why the Brookings Institution and Morrison Institute of Public Policy are bringing together some of the state’s top leaders Friday at ASU’s downtown Phoenix campus to consider how to amplify the Sun Corridor’s voice in national affairs.

Grounding the discussion will be a review of the big report we released last summer “Mountain Megas,” which notes that each of the five southern intermountain states is dominated by a megalopolis – Arizona’s Sun Corridor, the Front Range along Colorado’s Interstate 25, Wasatch Front along Utah’s Interstate 15, Greater Las Vegas and northern New Mexico.

Our work confirms that for all of its dynamism, the Sun Corridor is grappling with huge infrastructure, economic-development, education and sustainability challenges.

These challenges involve the very fundamentals of metro- and megapolitan health, as we at Brookings argue in our national Blueprint for American Prosperity initiative of which “Mountain Megas” is a part. Moreover, the sheer scale of the challenges in many cases transcends local and state problem-solving capacity and will require federal engagement, whether to help fill intercity rail gaps, maintain basic science research, repair the nation’s broken immigration system or develop a framework for climate-change responses.

And yet the Sun Corridor is by no means alone or without options. Even if securing the right kind of federal engagement remains a tall order, our work shows that each state in the intermountain “flyover zone” is now anchored by a major “megapolitan” area like the Sun Corridor that is contending with similar plus-sized urban challenges.

What’s more, the Southwestern states’ prominence in the recent election boosted their clout, as has the deep involvement in national politics of strong leaders like Gov. Janet Napolitano, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

In short, neither the Sun Corridor nor Arizona need to “go it alone” as they seek the limited but substantive federal engagements to craft the future.

Hence the question of the moment: Shouldn’t the five Mountain Megas – and their states – seek common cause as they insist on a new, more productive arrangement with Washington?

Sun Corridor leaders have only to note the extraordinary push of Midwestern lawmakers to secure a $25 billion federal bailout of the auto industry to recognize that multistate teamwork is crucial in federal relations.

In sum, Sun Corridor leaders should consider whether they can afford to watch the massive change of governance going on in Washington without forging ties with their colleagues in the other Mountain Megas to place a full mega-oriented team on the field.

We would suggest they dare not.