The New Economic Reality of the United States in the Era of the Megaregion

from the “U.S. Megaregions with Areas of Influence” Map – America 2050

Much has been said about California’s recent efforts to establish a globally competitive HSR Corridor, spanning the spine of the state from Sacramento and San Francisco in the north to Los Angeles and San Diego in the South. Needless to say, what has been said can easily be summarised into two distinct narratives:

1. Whether, in the era of the personal automobile and airlines, the benefits justify the cost.

2. Whether first apportioning more funds to Amtrak for the NEC would have made a stronger case [and led to more support] for future expansions of a HSR network nationally.

Interestingly, as is usual in public discourse concerning such issues, those who resort to either of the above lines of argument can be further separated into the two camps of those who believe all such investment, particularly if from the Federal Government, is inherently wasteful and those who believe certain regions are more deserving than others of investment (e.g. development in the NEC ought to supercede that in all other regions nationally as it is most vital).

6 States and 4,400 cities

In the case of the former, it would appear there is another, masked argument broiling underneath the surface (that of the utility – or futility – of Public vs. Private investment), which is best saved for another discussion entirely. Rather, it is the latter that is of most concern to me, at this point in time. As I’ve read through online forums dedicated to discussing the CAHSR, All Aboard Florida, and other planned developments across the country, I’ve found that there exists deep resentment from those who not only believe the NEC should be of the utmost priority, but also  that certain regions should be bypassed completely by any National HSR Network . This is deeply troubling considering the current, sorry state of investment that many regions receive.

“We are the place to be…everybody is heading south and not just south, they’re coming southeast and not just southeast, they are coming to Atlanta.” – Dr. Catherine Ross

 In case you have not already deduced as much, I am referring to the Gulf-Coast and  Piedmont-Atlantic (PAM) Megaregions (the collective Southeastern States in the U.S.). In all, the area of concern includes six states, and over 4,000 cities, grew by nearly 3 million people between 1995-2000 (The current population is set to double over the next 50 years), and is quickly becoming a “global leader” in the economy (exports grew almost 500x more than the national average according to data collected from 2000-2004).

The motive of pointing these trends out is not to engage in petty “flame wars” in which proponents of one region claim theirs is of higher importance than another, but to highlight what is lacking from the National Discourse whenever we talk about the issues facing us over the next half-century: the Southeast will only become more relevant, and vital a link in the the economy, not less.

This presentation by Dr. Catherine Ross to the ARC Board on the future growth and significance of Mega-Regions goes on to reiterate the implications of this lack of understanding upon patterns of investment and sense of priorities in the region. The biggest three are as follows:

– bad land use (a per capita land consumption of 0.67 acres compared to the national average of 0.36);Fulton County GIS, Georgia; USDA Natural Resources Inventory

– high rates of rural poverty; nearly 12 million people (indicative of a dichotomy between opportunities for rural vs. urban residents rather than Northerners vs. Southerners)

– increasing modal share in air and Vehicle Miles Traveled (increasing faster than population), compared to a decrease in rail

What these three issues point to, when taken together, is the need for more viable (economically and environmentally), long-term alternatives for regional transit. In this context, improved rail connections would do a great deal to mitigate the growing isolation  and loss of mobility that is unavoidably the region’s future (and, arguably, present). Granted, the other megaregions (which can be found in the link to the America 2050 maps above) will continue to grow in size and influence as well; I certainly do not deny this. However, I believe it is time that the National Discourse be amended to accommodate the new reality of the PAM and Gulf-Coast Megaregions as equally important to the NEC, Californian, Texan, and Floridian ones.

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August 7, 2013 · 10:10 pm