Issue 485 September 2009

Megaregions and America’s Economic Recovery

A look at opportunities for megaregional planning across the U.S.

Urbanist Article September 1, 2009

It has been almost five years since the concept of "megaregions" surfaced and gained recognition among urban planners and regionalists in the United States. My organization, America 2050, in the course of advocating for a national infrastructure plan, has worked with partners around the country, including SPUR, to bring this concept of a new, expanded urban scale to the fore in discussions about America's changing demographics, land-use patterns, transportation demands and energy needs in the 21st century.

The idea that our planning processes ought to take into account the scale at which travel patterns, electric grids, business relationships, housing markets and natural systems actually occur is straightforward. But the concept has been slow to take hold in federal policy — except in transportation. There, the recent infusion of funding for high-speed rail has highlighted the important role of megaregions in planning and building support for high-speed rail corridors.

While high-speed rail may set the stage for megaregions' debut in national policy discussions, this framework for spatial planning and coordination has many more applications. Right now the nation is experiencing not only an economic recession, but a profound transformation. How the nation emerges from this recession in terms of the structure of its economy, infrastructure, energy supply, workforce and approach to the natural environment will largely determine our ability to compete and prosper in the 21st century. As we contemplate a transformation in each of these areas, we also must look at the spatial dimension of our planning, governance and implementation systems.

Over the course of the past year, America 2050 has held a series of megaregion forums around the country with the aim of identifying infrastructure priorities that could be included in a national infrastructure plan. Last December's conference in Sacramento, "Investing in America's Competitiveness," co-sponsored by SPUR, the Bay Area Council, MTC and the Sacramento and San Joaquin Councils of Government was part of this series and focused on infrastructure challenges in the Northern California megaregion.

Our reasoning for regional organization is this: a federal plan dictated from Washington would be deeply unpopular. But one that is developed in collaboration with states and regions could identify the needed investments for a more productive economy, healthy environment and inclusive society. If the states and regions can coordinate as megaregions, we move the ball forward more quickly.

Megaregions contain over 70 percent of the U.S. population and economic growth in networks of America's densest, most productive and most complex regions. And they include infrastructure systems that span large areas and multiple political jurisdictions. If the megaregions can identify their large-scale, strategic infrastructure priorities, the national infrastructure plan is 70 percent complete.

To date, we've held megaregion-scale infrastructure forums in the Great Lakes, the Piedmont Atlantic Megaregion of the Southeast, the Northeast, Florida, Northern California and Southern California, and we will convene in the Texas Triangle this fall. While a variety of topics were raised in the different megaregions, the topics that surfaced repeatedly as ripe for megaregion collaboration were high-speed rail, water resource management and economic recovery.

Another topic, energy generation and transmission, seems appropriate for megaregion-scale coordination, but in most regions we had neither sufficient information or the right people in the room to understand the decisions that must be made in regard to siting power sources (traditional or renewable) and transmission networks. In the absence of this information, most of our discussions focused on the importance of implementing the smart grid, which will provide a degree of flexibility, information, pricing capability and redundancy, to improve electricity supply in the nation's most populous regions.

The Obama administration's commitment to high-speed rail, including $8 billion in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and another $5 billion in the president's proposed budget, provides a tantalizing reward for megaregion cooperation. Early this summer, the Federal Railroad Administration made clear that the selection process for the competitive high-speed rail grants would favor applications from regions with unified support for a proposed rail plan. On July 10, more than 40 states submitted 270 pre-applications for projects worth more than $100 billion.1 These applications will be evaluated for three separate grant programs: planning, projects and corridor programs, with final decisions made in early December. If regional cooperation is weighted heavily in the selection process, we can expect that megaregions with organized HSR plans and proposals — such as California's proposed network, the Midwest High Speed Rail initiative and the Northeast Corridor — will hold an advantage, particularly for grants to corridor programs, which is the largest funding category.

But what exactly does the administration mean by high-speed rail? Worldwide, definitions of what qualifies as "high-speed" range from Amtrak's Acela service, which can reach speeds of 150 mph but averages 86 mph, to the operating speeds of French, Chinese and Spanish systems at approximately 200 mph. The Federal Railroad Administration defined three categories of high-speed rail in April 2009: HSR Express — frequent service for distances of 200 to 600 miles, reaching speeds of 150 mph on grade-separated, dedicated rights of way; HSR Regional — relatively frequent service for distances of 100 to 500 miles, reaching speeds of 110 to 150 mph on a mix of dedicated and shared tracks; and Emerging HSR — developing corridors with "strong potential for future HSR Express or Regional," reaching top speeds of 90 to 110 mph on mostly shared tracks. 2 For the purpose of this article, high-speed rail refers to the Obama administration's definitions of HSR Express and HSR Regional. Ultimately, the decision about which type of service to implement will come down to a variety of political, financial, planning and engineering issues, to be determined by the megaregions themselves.

The opportunity for megaregions in this federal process is to coordinate their applications successfully to obtain federal grants, and ultimately to organize their future growth and development around high-speed rail networks. High-speed rail can be thought of as the mode of choice for megaregions, and the transportation technology needed to allow megaregions to fulfill their economic potential. Just as metropolitan regions were enabled by the construction of the interstate highway system, which facilitated daily commutes between city and suburb, high-speed rail could facilitate the business travel and economic links between regions with complementary economic specializations within a megaregion. 3

To start, high-speed rail travel within megaregions is likely to replace inter-city air and auto trips of 100 to 500 miles for business and recreational travel. This mode shift results in environmental benefits to the megaregion, by shifting passengers to a more energy-efficient mode of travel (and a potentially more carbon-efficient mode, if the trains are powered by renewable energy). 4 And if high-speed rail provides a more convenient, efficient and comfortable option for inter-city trips, it has the potential to provide the regions along a high-speed rail corridor with the economic boost that could result from more face-to-face meetings, interaction, collaboration and innovation among knowledge and service workers.

High-speed rail also reduces air congestion by freeing up slots at airports currently devoted to short-haul flights, which can be used for longer national and international trips with greater numbers of passengers. Though it remains to be seen whether riders would use high-speed rail for daily commutes over long distances, it is not unreasonable to assume that someday they will. Commuting distances and times have risen steadily since the early 1980s, and if high-speed rail can offer a productive and comfortable ride over long distances, those who can afford to may take it on a daily basis.

High-speed rail could also make the difference between achieving sustainable land-use patterns in megaregions, instead of getting bogged down in the negative effects of congestion and sprawl. A high-speed rail network can act as the backbone of a transportation system anchored in population centers and connected by extensive networks of regional rail and local transit options, supported by transit-oriented development. The desired model would have vibrant urban centers and suburbs connected by a high-speed rail network and surrounded by protected open space, farmland and forest land. High-speed rail would provide inter-city connections within the megaregion, while additional investments are needed to enhance the regional rail and local transit networks to support daily commuting and mobility within metropolitan regions. Trips between megaregions and across distances longer than 500 miles are still best served by air travel.

But high-speed rail not only can help megaregions fulfill their potential destinies as sustainable conurbations for the 21st century, but megaregions also are really the only places suited for investment in high-speed rail.

As emphasized in a recent America 2050 report, the strongest market demand for high-speed rail exists in corridors connecting cities that share certain characteristics:

  • cities are 100 to 500 miles apart
  • large cities in populous metropolitan regions
  • productive economies
  • high levels of auto and air congestion
  • existing and expansive transit networks (to feed riders to the high-speed rail services)

The nation's megaregions tend to possess all of these characteristics. 5

In contrast to the much derided long-haul corridors of Amtrak, which serve relatively few and travel slowly across the landscape, federal high-speed rail funding should target the nation's most populous regions in which strong economic ties and inter-city travel demand already exists among city pairs. But according to the Federal Railroad Administration's guidelines, it will also favor megaregions that have their act together, so to speak. Organizational capacity, a strong track record of comparable projects, a reasonable schedule, matching operating funds, preliminary engineering without fatal flaws, and local political support will help tip the balance in their favor. 6 All these factors will require megaregion-scale planning and political commitment from governors, mayors, business leaders and the civic community, not only to win the federal funding race but to see these complex and risky projects through to completion.

Trans-American Passenger NetworkThis map highlights a series of national high-speed rail corridors that will likely receive priority funding from the federal government. These corridors connect major cities within many of the nation's megaregions, and in some cases, connect several megaregions to each other.
Water flows across state and regional boundaries without regard for political jurisdictions. In doing so, it provides the uniting element for some of the nation's megaregions. The Great Lakes Megaregion and the Gulf Coast are physically defined by their major water features. Megaregions such as Northern and Southern California, the Piedmont Atlantic, and the Florida Megaregion all have megaregion-scale water issues to contend with.

In the Midwest, the Great Lakes Basin Compact has provided a basis for cooperation among the eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces since the mid-1950s. This agreement, recognized by the U.S. Congress, provides a forum for water resource management and for evaluating the impacts of specific state projects against the entire ecosystem. Importantly, it provides a significant regulatory obstacle against inter-basin transfers of water out of the Great Lakes Basin. More recently, the Great Lakes Commission has been a recipient of federal stimulus funds to implement projects to achieve the Commission's water quality goals. 7

Though the institution is unique at its scale, the trans-regional challenges faced by the Great Lakes Commission in managing water resources are not. The recent strategic plan of the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force requires action on the part of two separate California megaregions — though, conveniently, they are located largely in one state. The impetus for statewide action is clear; the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta serves the nation's most productive agriculture industry and provides drinking water for two-thirds of California's population. 8

In drought-ridden Atlanta, America 2050 convened leaders from across the Piedmont Atlantic Megaregion in early 2009 to identify major infrastructure priorities. There we learned that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers South Atlantic Division recently had sponsored an exploratory workshop to create a Regional Water Resource Alliance of eight southeastern states. At the invitation of the Corps, representatives of the states met in December 2008, identifying potential benefits and barriers to formal regional collaboration on water issues. Among the benefits: the ability to influence federal policies and funding, share best practices and promote greater water efficiency. Among the barriers: the perceived lack of crisis and the threat of litigation among states. The stakeholders also observed that if states do not coordinate for their collective interest, unwelcome federal policies or regulations may intervene if drought conditions reach crisis proportions. 9

From these examples, we can see that while water resource management at a watershed (or megaregion) scale intuitively makes sense, these types of collaborations are scattershot at best. However, as climate change brings about more frequent droughts, unpredictable weather and more severe storms, there may be greater impetus for coordination and management across larger areas for issues from drinking-water protection to flood control to coastal management. For example, land use management that focuses growth in centers and protects regional open space can protect source waters, reducing the cost of drinking-water treatment to cities. Greater efficiency in urban areas and adoption of "green infrastructure" practices, such as capturing storm water for irrigation, can reduce competition among urban areas and agriculture for water resources.

A federal policy that provides modest incentives for megaregion-scale coordination and water resource planning could be just the added push that is necessary to get these efforts off the ground. It would also provide the benefit of identifying strategic priorities for federal policies and funding in large regions.

The economic recession has touched all parts of the country, but even before the current recession, there were vast areas of the country — from large regions to rural communities to individual cities — that were losing jobs and population. Two of the nation's megaregions — the Great Lakes and the Gulf Coast — rank below the national average in population and job growth. And since the recession hit, economic pains are being amplified in other megaregions as well. In Florida, where population growth and real estate speculation fueled a housing bubble, civic leaders are looking hard at an economy built on construction, tourism and sunshine. As one business leader remarked at a recent forum, "it's no longer sufficient to go to cold climates and recruit." 10 In Southern California, the decreasing share of U.S. metropolitan employment combined with an increasing share of U.S. metropolitan population11 is cause for concern. When these symptoms of economic distress are spread over the megaregion, it makes sense that the solutions might take place at this scale as well.

Yet one must look back more than 100 years in American history to find precedent for large-scale, regional economic development strategies advanced by the federal government. In 1908, Theodore Roosevelt convened a Conference of Governors at the White House to review the preliminary report of the Inland Waterways Commission. The report, prepared by Gifford Pinchot, chief of the Forest Service, proposed a national conservation movement, restoration of river basins and economic development projects for the South and West (now the nation's Sunbelt), which had missed out on the massive wealth accumulated in the Midwest and Northeast by the robber barons of the railroad age. Subsequent federal action, with the support of the governors, resulted in projects such as the Roosevelt Dam in Phoenix, the Colorado River Compact and the Hoover Dam12, and the rapid growth of these regions' economies throughout the 20th century.

A modern-day corollary to the South and West in the early 1900s is the struggling Great Lakes Megaregion and the long, as yet unsuccessful transition of its cities and regions from an industrial to a service-based economy. The federal government has already committed close to $85 billion for the bailout of the automobile industry. Now we must build on this investment to create a cross-sector economic development strategy for the whole Great Lakes Megaregion stretching from Duluth, Minnesota, to Buffalo, New York, rooted in infrastructure investment, workforce training, and renewable energy technology and production.

While different strategies and levels of investment are required in different megaregions, a new program within the U.S. Economic Development Administration could coordinate all federal investments and programs at the megaregion scale in different categories, and promote greater synergies, cooperation and leveraging of federal funds. For example, a high-speed rail corridor program in the Great Lakes Megaregion could be coordinated with a pilot program for high-speed rail car manufacturing, workforce retraining and policy programs at university transportation research centers. This effort should also be coordinated with the White House's Office of Urban Affairs and Domestic Policy Council, which recently convened the federal secretaries and administrators of housing, transportation, environment, labor and small business with governors and local leaders to promote federal-local partnerships toward sustainable, competitive and inclusive communities.

In some respects, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was a missed opportunity to direct more funding toward the infrastructure systems of tomorrow. Because of the emphasis on speed, it directed funding almost entirely through existing legislative vehicles, instead of investing in innovative programs and reform. But it also demonstrated the importance of establishing legislative vehicles — no matter the venue — that can create the basis for new programs and federal actions if the opportunities (or a second stimulus) arise. Federal high-speed rail funding was appropriated through the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, a bill signed into law with the Rail Safety Act by President Bush in October 2008. The bill's passage benefited in substantial part from the coordinated advocacy of the Business Alliance for Northeast Mobility, a coalition of chambers of commerce in the Northeast megaregion, which sought authorizing legislation to fund Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. Without this bill in place, high-speed rail funding might not have been appropriated.

Looking ahead, a national infrastructure strategy that promotes megaregion-scale coordination could be rolled out at the federal level in a variety of ways. It could take shape in multiple, separate pieces of legislation: the reauthorization of the surface transportation bill, the water resources bill, and climate and energy legislation. In each of these areas, megaregion-scale planning, cooperation and coordination could be encouraged by competitive grant programs or modest, additional incentive-funding to develop megaregion-scale plans for certain resources or infrastructure systems, along the lines of the competitive high-speed rail grant program.

These legislative reforms will require a broader federal vision that responds to the transformative change underway in our national economy, global environment and national population demographics. Until we make a break from the inertia of past practices, we will be ill-equipped to respond to the challenges of tomorrow. END


1 U.S. DOT. July 20, 2009. Pre-Application Raw Data Series.
2 U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration, “Vision for High-Speed Rail in America.” p 2. April 2009.
3 With thanks to Kip Bergstrom, executive director of the Stamford, Connecticut Redevelopment Authority, who made this observation at a meeting of Northeast business leaders.
4 According to the U.S. DOE 2007 Transportation Energy Book, Amtrak is one-third more energy efficient than auto travel on a per passenger basis.
5 Yoav Hagler. “Where High-Speed Rail Works Best.” Aug 2009. America 2050.
6 DOT FRA High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program Notice. June 23, 2009. The Federal Register.
7 Great Lakes Commission http://www.glc.announce/.
8 Blue Ribbon Task Force. October 2008. Delta Vision Strategic Plan.
9 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. March 26, 2009. “Final Summary: Southeastern States/ Federal Partners Regional Workshop.” Charleston, South Carolina, Dec. 10-11, 2008.
10 Remarks at the 2009 Super Regional Leadership Conference: A Tampa Bay and Central Florida Collaboration during Session II: Creating a Common Language to Align Our Strategic Models, as noted by the author.
11 Kern County Council of Governments, San Diego Association of Governments. Southern California Association of Governments. September 2005. “The Southern California Mega-Region: A Case Study of Global Gateway Regions: America’s Third Century Strategy.”
12 Robert Fishman. “1808-1908-2008: National Planning for America.” July 2007. []

About the Authors: 

Petra Todorovich is Director of America 2050, an organization focused on advancing a national infrastructure plan for America’s prosperous and sustainable growth. More information about America 2050 is available at

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