Western Perspective: Mountain Megas

October 14, 2008

The Intermountain West—once the Great Empty—is where it’s at this fall. The states, especially in the region’s southern half —Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah—suddenly lie smack in the middle of the nation’s most radical and consequential demographic, land-use and economic transformations. The region is growing up, flexing its muscles and distancing itself from California, which has historically had an outsized impact on the West’s development.

In fact, thanks to such maturation, the southern Intermountain West is well on its way to emerging as what might be called the New American Heartland as its economy, people and politics become more central to the nation.

Politically, the region—blessed already by nationally significant senators and governors—could be home to several swing states in the 2008 election and in time play the storied “kingmaking” role the Midwest does now.

Policywise, the Mountain region’s signature issues are more and more the nation’s, whether it be road and rail infrastructure, job quality, immigration or energy. And for that matter, the southern Intermountain West is also on the cutting edge of pioneering the astonishing new urban forms that are evolving all across America and even abroad.

Most notably, the region is home to five emerging “megapolitan” areas—vast, newly recognized “super regions” that often combine two or more metropolitan areas into a single huge economic, social and urban system.

In the 1960s, Dallas and Fort Worth were clearly colliding, as were Washington, D.C. and Baltimore by the 1980s. Now regions with more far-flung urban cores such as Phoenix and Tucson are exhibiting the same pattern, as are the urban spaces extending around Denver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Albuquerque. In short, a region that was once a peripheral rural “flyover” zone and “empty quarter” has moved in a very real sense to the center of American urban invention.

Which is why our group at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program in Washington, D.C.—one of the nation’s leading urban research organizations—undertook two years ago to probe the nature of the Intermountain region’s new urban reality and assess, in a presidential election year, its federal policy needs.

Going in we thought (and still do) that on balance the campaigners, power brokers, congressmen, commentators, think tankers and feature writers of the nation’s Capitol have failed to understand the Rocky Mountain West’s dynamic new urban reality.

What is more, we felt that even within the region there was a need for greater awareness of the new reality and an added sense of common cause among the different states’ leaders to ensure the region asserts its common interests cohesively in Washington.

And so in July, just in time for the major political parties’ August conventions, we published a major report on the southern intermountain region entitled “Mountain Megas: America ‘s Newest Metropolitan Places and a Federal Partnership to Help Them Prosper.”

Prepared as part of our metro-oriented Blueprint for American Prosperity initiative, “Mountain Megas” describes and assesses the new super-sized reality of the Intermountain West and proposes a multi-dimensional policy agenda for securing a more helpful partnership with Washington to empower regional leaders’ efforts to build a brand of Western prosperity that is at once more sustainable, productive and inclusive than past paroxysms of boom and bust.

Along these lines, we assumed that true prosperity is actually based on achieving those three interrelated dimensions of prosperity—sustainable, productive and inclusive growth—all at once. In addition, we assumed that such balanced growth depends on the region assembling in its megapolitan areas sufficient stocks of the crucial assets that contribute to such prosperity: top-notch infrastructure, world-class innovation inputs, vital human capital, strong quality-of-place, as well as the effective regional governance to put it all together.

And so with that in mind, we probed and sorted the region’s crucial economic, demographic and developmental trends and challenges as they currently engulf the southern Rockies’ five “megapolitan areas:

  • The Sun Corridor that incorporates Prescott, Phoenix and Tucson in Arizona;
  • The Front Range area that links up metropolitan Fort Collins, Boulder, Denver and Colorado Springs along I-25 in Colorado;
  • The Wasatch Front along Utah ‘s I-15 corridor linking up metro Logan, Ogden, Provo and Salt Lake City;
  • Greater Las Vegas; and
  • Northern New Mexico, where metro Albuquerque and Santa Fe are converging.

For the analysis, we used a new large-scale geographical unit—the “megapolitan” area, developed by Virginia Tech—and with it we took stock of the region with reference to the new super-metro scale across which development is now spilling.

What did we find?

We found a region in the midst of massive, convulsive change and sorely in need of a new relationship with Washington to help it surmount its challenges and assert its leadership in the nation and the world.

In our account, super-fast, hyper-urban population growth is creating gargantuan infrastructure, economic development, education and placemaking challenges, not to mention a crying need for new governance solutions capable of mastering mega-scaled problems:

  • Careening development across vast expanses of territory has left the region struggling with titanic infrastructure challenges.
  • A critical interstate linkage is missing between Phoenix and Las Vegas. Intercity passenger rail remains underdeveloped throughout the region. And transportation choices(such as parallel highways, commuter rail and transit options) are still uncommon in the New American Heartland.
  • Likewise, the region’s air network is second-tier, and serves mainly to support regional flights and few direct, international connections. In addition, the threat of global climate change raises vexing questions about water and energy systems and grids.
  • Economic transformation continues but innovation and productivity rates in the region remain mediocre as the region shifts away from “traditional” resource-based employment and into service industries (hospitality, business and professional work) and high-tech enterprises (aerospace, biotech, IT). Progress aside, the region still possesses a somewhat underperforming portfolio of industry clusters in critical “traded” sectors. And despite undeniable strong points the Mountain West research complex remains spotty as indicated by measures of research and development expenditures, the translation of inventions to job-creation and the presence of highly educated workers.
  • Large-scale domestic and international migration has brought massive social and educational challenges. Rapid legal and illegal immigration in the context of the nation’s unsettled, unworkable immigration policies has generated uncertainty and controversy among employers and communities alike, and is creating dislocations for firms and strains for local governments.
  • At the same time, this new reality finds the training and education needs of an increasingly diverse population largely unmet. Huge needs exist for more and better English language classes, new ideas for educating the children of new Americans, and new strategies for securing the educational pipeline from pre-K through high school and beyond.
  • Similarly, widening income disparities and growing poverty rates give rise to concerns that the Mountain West—once a middle-class society—is developing into a society of haves and have-nots.
  • And then, 50 years of mass-produced, auto-centric development have bequeathed to the region a largely monotonous, inefficient urban fabric that must be overhauled for an era of high gas prices and evolving tastes. In this sense, placemaking and the design of truly distinctive, well-designed urban places stands as a key challenge all across the megapolitan West. To truly flourish, the region must find new ways to carve vibrant, transit-linked urban centers out of the autoscape.

And we noted one other challenge: The Intermountain megas are facing a plus-sized governance riddle. In this regard, while megapolitan-area leaders are innovating, the fact remains that they are frequently hobbled because they lack the super-scaled governance networks or institutions needed to manage events at the super-regional scale on which problems manifest themselves.

In short, as the problems get bigger and sprawl across more metros and counties and municipalities, the governance challenges of response get bigger, too.

As to what we think needs to happen now, it’s this: Acting together, as an ascendant and increasingly consequential coalition, the Mountain Megas—and the states that contain them—must insist upon the shaping of a new and more supportive and empowering relationship with the federal government in Washington that will allow the region’s pivotal urban regions to surmount their common challenges and assert their leadership in the nation and the world.

To be sure, self-help will always remain the primary source of progress in the Intermountain West. After all, America’s most vibrant new urban region has long relied on its do-it-yourself spirit to begin the work of building a “civilization to match the scenery,” to paraphrase Utah-born writer Wallace Stegner.

Moreover, the Mountain West’s megapolitan areas have made impressive progress lately in beginning to address the super-sized challenges that stand between them and true prosperity.

  • On infrastructure, they have thrown themselves into building the nation’s most impressive new light rail systems, whether in metro Denver, Phoenix or Salt Lake City.
  • On innovation, they have collaborated across local and metro lines to make serious investments in the region’s scientific, engineering, alternative energy and medical capabilities, as exhibited most dramatically by the three-metro Science Foundation Arizona initiative.
  • And on placemaking and governance, leaders of the megapolitan West have led the nation by immersing themselves in regional visioning processes like Envision Utah or experimenting with new regional governance networks such as the Metro Mayor’s Caucus in greater Denver.

And yet, the fact remains that while the West’s megapolitan leaders and institutions can achieve a lot by themselves, they can’t “go it alone” given the sheer size and boundary-crossing nature of the challenges they face.

Instead, at least at times, and on certain crucial, mega-scaled issues, Western leaders require a steady, supportive partner in the federal government to offer leadership on uniquely federal, border-transcending issues like inter-mega transportation, basic science research, immigration and climate change responses even as they also need greater empowerment and freedom.

Our report calls out a substantial list of policy changes needed for a revitalized Mountain West /Washington partnership.

But to pull out a few errands, Washington needs to at once lead on key infrastructure, innovation and sustainability issues even as it “gets out of the way” on others and moves to empower these increasingly capable, innovative urban areas.

  • On infrastructure, Washington needs to help state and local governments and the private sector build out their underdeveloped transportation network in a next-generation fashion.

    That means strengthening nationally significant passenger and freight corridors in the region, making a long-term commitment to high-speed rail connections, and moving to address the region’s long-term air needs. At the same time, Washington needs to quit favoring particular transportation solutions and become what we call “modally agnostic” even as it provides substantially more autonomy to metros and megas to shape their transport networks.

  • On innovation, Congress should fully fund the America Competes Act to bolster U.S. science research (which would have disproportionate benefits for the Intermountain West) and extend the life of recently passed renewable energy tax credits to reduce the uncertainty around alternative energy investments. But new initiatives are also needed.

    The establishment of a national innovation policy with an explicit charge to help foster diverse, locally led regional industry clusters would be a good start. So too would a major national push to develop a high-powered, interlinked network of “discovery innovation institutes” tied to the region’s universities to pursue new methods of accelerating the commercialization of pathbreaking new alternative energy breakthroughs.

  • And on sustainability issues, no region stands better poised to remake its economy and built environment on a more supportable footing. Therefore, it is of special urgency to the Intermountain West that Washington provide the basic framework for change:
  • Better data and models for monitoring and predicting climate, water, and energy trends;
  • and a national carbon pricing system—in the form of a tax or “cap-and-trade” program—that would further catalyze markets for the alternative energy innovations that the region is poised to deliver.

To help remake the built environment, moreover, the federal government should issue a “sustainability challenge” to catalyze bold Western problem-solving among state, mega-regional, metropolitan, local and tribal actors.

This challenge, delivered in the form of a competitive grant offer, would challenge all regions to figure out the boldest, most creative and effective new ways to better link up disparate housing, transportation, environmental, energy and land-use policies to achieve broad sustainability goals, such as the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.

The grant would be performance-based, and substantially reward the most ingenious and creative solutions to core sustainability challenges with a substantial financial carrot and flexibility in implementing federal program requirements.

In that way, Washington would appropriately reward Mountain State innovation without pre-judging the possible solutions or micromanaging the details.

And the same approach might work as a way of supporting the emergence of new, wider-reaching and more interconnected governance networks to match the geographic scale and dynamism of the new reality.

One idea: Washington could announce a “governance challenge” to prompt megapolitan-area leaders’ to experiment with new ways of organizing themselves. Once again, the challenge would mandate no particular approach but instead simply reward the most path-breaking proposals available for connecting regional and super-regional governance in such key domains as transportation planning or land use or housing with substantial grant money.

In sum, the time has come to make America’s emerging New Heartland in the West a prime test-bed for the nation’s next generation of pragmatic, far-sighted metropolitan policies. With the Intermountain States increasingly central to national affairs, Washington should look West and seek to craft with Mountain Mega leaders a supportive new partnership that matches the size and promise of the nation’s newest urban areas.