Metro Areas Need to Use Power of Their Votes

MarySue Barrett and Bruce Katz
Bruce Katz Founding Director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab - Drexel University

January 22, 2008

Presidential hopefuls have been stumping for such a long time now that it’s hard to believe the “Super Duper Tuesday” primary contests are less than three weeks away. Candidates have time to capture the hearts and minds of voters, not in Iowa and New Hampshire, but in a record 24 other states (thus the “Duper”), including — for the first time — Illinois. They would do well by starting to address what’s eating at voters in greater Chicago and other top metropolitan regions.

Collectively, the top 100 metros take up only 12 percent of the land in the United States, but account for an astounding 65 percent of our population, 68 percent of jobs and 75 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product. If talented people, quality jobs, innovative firms, advanced universities, planes, trains and, of course, money make the world go round — well, then metro regions are the axis.

Yet, voters in these areas are losing sleep over the state of the economy, and the federal government — and, so far, most presidential candidates — are doing little to address their worries.

That’s why the Brookings Institution has launched the Blueprint for American Prosperity. Together with regional groups such as the Metropolitan Planning Council, Brookings will spend this election year making the case that we are a Metro Nation and need to start acting like one. To that end, Brookings and its regional friends are reimagining the partnership between the federal government and metro regions, one that strengthens economies, promotes sustainability and ensures a strong and diverse middle class. There is much work to do.

In Chicagoland, as in many other areas across the country, a two-income household no longer guarantees an affordable home in a desirable community. In fact, a fire- fighter and a kindergarten teacher together can only afford to purchase a typical home in 40 percent of Chicagoland’s villages and cities.

Many affordable communities are miles from the nearest job center, which prompts an urgent question for employers, “How long will my employees be willing to drive — 20, 30, even 40 miles to get to the office?” Meanwhile, the typical commuter in this region spends nearly two full days each year stuck in traffic, time they could have spent with family or friends, catching up on sleep, working out or volunteering.

Shrinking homeownership rates and lengthening commutes are as unsustainable as crumbling bridges, overtaxed airports and outdated freight infrastructure. At the heart of the nation and on the shores of Lake Michigan, Chicago’s location makes it the third largest intermodal port in the world, after Hong Kong and Singapore. Almost $1 trillion of our nation’s freight moves through this region annually, and freight volumes are expected to increase 80 percent or so in the next 20 years.

Yet trains often must slow to a crawl through northeastern Illinois and northwestern Indiana because technological and physical updates to tracks and rail yards are long overdue. Businesses are losing money due to delayed deliveries, and drivers are experiencing more traffic jams on local roads. The federal government’s response has been to spread surface transportation funding around like peanut butter, rather than investing strategically in major national rail hubs, ports and gateways, like Chicago.

The increasing demand for an educated work force, the need to weave new immigrants and their families into our communities, a growing energy crisis — these are just some of the other issues Chicagoland and all other metropolitan regions must address to remain competitive.

Chicagoland simply does not have the power or resources to achieve meaningful reforms to metro-scale problems such as crushing traffic gridlock and inadequate work force housing on its own. Whether we appreciate it or not, the federal government has a powerful role to play in helping metros address these and other issues — through smart investments, market-shaping information and environment-strengthening regulation. This potential is not being realized since for too long the federal government has been strangely adrift and unresponsive to the dynamic forces at play in our country.

The first wide-open election since 1952, when no incumbent president or vice president is in the race, creates a historic moment to totally rethink the compact between metro areas and the federal government. The first candidate to seize this opportunity will score points with metropolitan voters on Feb. 5 in key metros such as Phoenix, Los Angeles, Denver, Atlanta, Boston, New York, the Twin Cities, Santa Fe and Chicago. Metro thinking and action is the only path to secure and sustain prosperity for all Americans.

MarySue Barrett is president of the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago and Bruce Katz is director of metropolitan policy program for the Brookings Institution.