The U.S. Department of Transportation announced $1.5 billion in TIGER Grant funding for more than 50 high-priority, innovative transportation projects across the country that will create new jobs. The TIGER grant program targets major national and regional transportation projects that are in many cases difficult to pursue through other government funding programs. Selected projects must foster job creation, show strong economic benefits and promote communities that are safer, cleaner and more livable.
Population forecasts indicate that more than 140 million more people are expected over the next 50 years. Globalization is transforming urban economies around the world, and a great deal of effort is going to investigate sustainability and often this is done through renewed focus on regions. There is also increased focus on the “megaregion” in the United States. Some have suggested that two-thirds of the nation’s population growth and more than half of economic activities are taking place in megaregions, defined as connected metropolitan centers and their surrounding areas. These eight to 10 megaregions and their hinterlands cross standard administrative boundaries and can be strategic platforms within which to consider infrastructure investment, innovative finance, natural resources management, diversified economic activities and sustainability. The emergence of these megaregions and a renewed focus on them offers great potential within which to begin to develop and implement sustainable transportation systems.
Approximately two-thirds of the nation’s population growth and more than half of economic activities are taking place in “megaregions.” Megaregions are connected cities and their surrounding areas, generally areas with a population of about 10 million. In the United States, the 10 largest megaregions represent 80 percent of our economic activity and seven of them have populations of 10 million people. Through planning at the megaregion level we are able to keep our cities economically viable and healthy providing a high quality of life, good jobs, cultural amenities, and natural assets and resources from parks to ports.
Regional coordination of infrastructure investments is increasingly regarded as a way to enhance the productivity of the entire region while preserving elements that would lead to greater quality of life, such as the Randstad’s Green Heart. In the Philippines and Africa, regional coordination and cooperation are seen as a way to improve economic returns on infrastructure investment, while in China, regionalism is a tool to respond to rapidly increasing transportation demands. The European Union (EU) hopes that the EU-wide Trans-European Transport Networks will promote economic growth throughout while limiting the negative environmental impacts of transportation.
What is most striking about the cases outside the United States is the difference between those projects that originate at the federal level or higher and those that originate at the local level. The EU has the capacity to propose a transportation network far more ambitious than any one of its member states could suggest, but control of funding remains with the member states. The most successful cases appear to be those where local actors take the lead, as in the Yangtze River Delta and the Randstad. Since China’s state government has empowered cities to decide on and finance major infrastructure investments, further regional efforts in China will probably originate from actors within the metropolitan areas, especially dominant actors such as Shanghai’s city government, rather than be imposed by the state government.
In the United States, as we have seen, the locally originated regional associations have tended to be weaker than those that originated at the federal level. Has the time come for empowered regional planning from the bottom up in the United States? It may be that megaregions can be the first (North) American example of regionally cooperative approaches with enough local buy-in to be able to act decisively. The Metropolitan Planning Organizations, a case of a federal creation and empowerment of regional organizations, could possibly become actors within a megaregional framework.
Schwieterman & Scheldt indicate that about 63 percent of the proposed mileage for high-speed rail service in the United States is included in corridors that cross state lines. The location of the proposed HSR coincides with the economic core of most megaregions and would serve to provide greater mobility in a more sustainable way. The triple bottom line should be adopted as the measurement against which we can evaluate the sustainability and performance of our transportation system to assure improved quality of life for all citizens. Rail transportation holds out the promise of greater efficiency, sustainability and enhanced competitiveness and some in the United States have committed to going along for the ride.
Dr. Catherine Ross is the director of the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development, Georgia Institute of Technology.