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Why Infrastructure Spending Should Empower Megaregions

Federal funding formulas need to evolve to help regional governing bodies to accelerate both large and community-focused projects that have an impact across these large population clusters.

Map of emerging megaregions in the U.S.
(Source: Wikipedia Commons)
When President Biden assumed office, he brought with him the promise to act quickly on a vast array of interwoven national challenges. After getting much-needed help to communities challenged by COVID-19, passing a comprehensive federal infrastructure package now sits at the top of the president’s agenda.

Changing decades-old formulas for infrastructure funding and how the money is distributed are not new topics for discussion. As a nation, we have been arguing over this approach for more than a generation. While the importance of infrastructure makes intense debates appropriate, one critical element of such policy is often overlooked: the role and importance of large population clusters — “megaregions” — within and between adjoining states. The infrastructure debate must start including a discussion on how to further empower regional governing bodies to effectively accelerate megaregional infrastructure projects already identified as feasible and desired in local communities.

The project evaluation process for federal funds too often creates a situation where public agencies develop new ideas, such as a streetcar, based on what will score high enough to win much-needed capital investments, even if the project has marginal benefits and high long-term costs for the local community. A direct funding mechanism to bodies at the regional and megaregional levels can advance community-focused projects while reducing bureaucratic hurdles and expediting implementation. Such a mechanism would provide an opportunity for identifying and creating formal governance structures that allow megaregions to progress both large and community-focused infrastructure projects without losing the scale of the former and the relevance of the latter.

A geographic body like the megaregion may be unfamiliar to most people, but chances are you live in one. The boundaries can fluctuate as growth occurs, but approximately 75 of the United States’ top 100 cities, encompassing 75 percent of the U.S. population, fall within a megaregion. Portland and Seattle are the anchors of the Cascadia megaregion. On the opposite end of the country, the Florida megaregion connects Miami to Orlando to Tampa. The Texas Triangle has Dallas, Houston and Austin/San Antonio as its points. In the national conversation about the best way to design and pay for a new infrastructure plan, federal policy must acknowledge the importance of megaregions as a tool to accelerate the impact that community residents are demanding from their local governments.

Megaregions are already home to several exciting infrastructure projects that have strong community support. For instance, the Florida Brightline, a high-speed train financed mostly through private activity bonds, is more than 50 percent complete for its Orlando extension. Eventually, the train is expected to offer a direct ride from downtown Miami to Tampa. The Texas Central rail project received its final federal approvals last fall to connect Dallas and Houston — the country’s fourth and fifth largest metropolitan areas, respectively — via a Japanese-inspired high-speed train. With these kinds of feasible large-scale regional projects, a more nuanced analysis of the local infrastructure opportunities at key connectivity hubs can be pursued.

A megaregional, transformative infrastructure project like the Brightline requires activities near stations — what someone just off the train can reach in a 15 to 30 minute walk. Fort Lauderdale, Fla., recently opened a Mobility Hub, a multiblock area near downtown that will connect various transportation choices including the Brightline, commuter rail, regional express bus service, walking and biking. Someone in Miami can travel via train in under an hour to downtown Fort Lauderdale for a meeting, to meet friends for dinner or see an event at the performing arts center.

It is not just cities with high-speed train connections that are pursuing transformational, multimodal infrastructure investments with megaregional impacts. Austin recently approved an increased property tax rate to fund Project Connect, a $7.1 billion plan to add fast, frequent public transit in a city and region experiencing significant growing pains. In Los Angeles County, a 1-cent sales tax funds what’s considered the largest and most ambitious transit expansion in the United States at the moment. Approximately $800 million a year is raised and dedicated toward capital and operational needs. L.A. County’s population is larger than those of 41 states, and the coordination and collaboration to support these countywide projects impacts the entire Southern California megaregion.

Both Austin and Los Angeles County realize that infrastructure is more than just transportation, and they are using their new revenue sources to invest in housing and social services, such as efforts to address homelessness and prevent displacement. They understand what their communities need and have proactively deployed innovative methods to make critical investments.

A smart federal infrastructure policy that further delegates authority to megaregional bodies can better prioritize local needs and accelerate the positive national trend of community advocacy and impact through the built environment.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Principal and co-founder of LDR Advisory Partners
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