Given both the landmass and population size of the United States, especially combined with the overall scale of our wealth, it’s clearly necessary to have some fairly robust intermediate levels of government between the federal government in Washington and individual lives. This is what we have states for. But just as relatively little of life proceeds on a truly “national” scale, almost nothing happens on a “California” scale or an “Illinois” scale, either. Instead, the American economy is organized around distinct metropolitan areas. Instead of things happening in Illinois, they happen in Chicagoland, which contains some but not all of Illinois and some areas that aren’t in Illinois. For most New Jerseyans it matters more how things go in Greater New York or in Greater Philadelphia (depending on where in the state they live) than on how things go in New Jersey in general. What’s more, as Bruce Katz, Mark Muro, and Jennifer Bradley observe in a new article for Democracy the 100 largest metro areas account for 75 percent of total economic output, so tending to the continued viability, vitality, and growth of our metro areas is crucial to our overall economic fortunes.
Unfortunately, even though we have a statistical definition of what constitutes a metro area, and thus can say a bunch of things to characterize metro America, our institutions of government don’t even remotely line up in the right way. In particular, decisions about transportation policy tend to get made either in state capitols or else in too-small municipalities. This winds up prioritizing the construction of new roads in undeveloped areas over maintaining and upgrading existing transportation infrastructure in more built-up areas. There’s also no way for the political process to reflect the fact that infrastructure investments in some areas have significant spillover effects, while investments in other places are of purely local interest.
Meanwhile, of course, we can’t just scrap the existing state boundaries and redraw the lines. Arguably, we should do that, but it’s not very realistic. They offer some more modest suggestions:
The federal government should lead by applying a sort of regionalism “steer” to essentially all of its activities, especially the scores of categorical, block, and other grant flows. Today, these flows often intensify local governance fragmentation. With the attachment of modest incentives for regionalization in the form of extra funding, these flows could promote more effective metropolitan governance systems and problem-solving at very low cost. Likewise, a small portion of a region’s entitlement to funds could be subtracted if it chose not to embrace regionalism.
But that’s the nudge from Washington. The nation should also incentivize localities to figure regionalization out for themselves by issuing a bold, large challenge — call it a Governance Challenge — to localities to get their acts together and collaborate. The Governance Challenge would encourage and reward coordination across any wide swath of program areas, from social services or land- use planning to fiscal management, in exchange for modest financial rewards or (perhaps more attractive to localities) greater programmatic flexibility.
It gets hard to think about these kind of long-festering issues in a time of crisis, but the fact of the matter is that there are a lot of people working in the executive branch and there’s ample time to move on multiple fronts. This is the kind of thing that the White House’s urban policy office can be helpful in coordinating. And we now have a House of Representatives where most of the key stakeholders represent portions of metro areas and should be open to this kind of rethinking.