Skip to content U.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway AdministrationU.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration

Office of Planning, Environment, & Realty (HEP)
Planning · Environment · Real Estate

HEP Events Guidance Publications Glossary Awards Contacts

Megaregions: Literature Review of the Implications for U.S. Infrastructure Investment and Transportation Planning

Table of Contents

  1. Executive Summary
  2. Section I. Overview
    1. Research Background
    2. Report Organization
  3. Section II. Foundations and Methods of Delineation
    1. Examining the Literature
      1. Regionalism
      2. Globalization
      3. Global Climate Change
      4. Economic Geography
      5. Spatial Planning
      6. Governance
      7. Informing a Megaregional Framework
    2. Megaregions & Infrastructure
      1. Freight Movement and Megaregions
      2. National Highway Systems (NHS)
      3. High-speed Railway (HSR) Systems
      4. Green Infrastructure
    3. Defining a Region
      1. Historic Delineation Methods
      2. Preliminary Delineations of Megaregions
  4. Section III. A Historical and Contemporary Perspective
    1. History of Regional Planning in the United States
      1. The Regional Plan Association
      2. The Tennessee Valley Authority
      3. The Appalachian Regional Commission
      4. National Highway Planning
      5. Metropolitan Planning Organizations
      6. Conclusions
    2. From Regions to Megaregions
      1. Impetus for Megaregions for Transportation Planning
      2. Profiles of Megaregions in the United States
      3. Profiles of Megaregional Activities Abroad
  5. Section IV. Conclusion
  6. References
  7. Tables

Executive Summary

In the twenty-first century, the United States faces increasing challenges in terms of economic competitiveness, quality of life, traffic congestion, aging transportation infrastructure, and scarcity of natural resources. These challenges are particularly difficult because they are not confined to traditional geographic or political borders, but arise from the interactions between cities and regions. In order to address these challenges, local, state, regional, and federal actors may be efforts and selected regional planning initiatives, related to transportation infrastructure investment, both inside and outside the United States.

Megaregions could become places that operate-and thrive-at the center of a new economic and planning geography, one in which high value is placed on networks and on building attractive and healthy urban areas.

What are megaregions? Megaregions are geographic areas that will contain two-thirds of the nation's population by 2050 (Amekudzi, Thomas- Mobley & Ross, 2007). They can be understood as networks of well served by planning for critical infrastructure on a scale larger than has been common in transportation and regional planning history and practice. One potential approach to address these challenges, and take advantages of the opportunities that arise metropolitan centers and their surrounding areas, connected by existing environmental, economic, cultural, and infrastructure relationships. As economic drivers, megaregions will continue to attract new populations and require new from growing urban agglomerations, is the idea of the "megaregion.

Megaregions: Literature Review of the Implications for U.S. Infrastructure Investment and Transportation Planning was prepared for the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration by the Georgia Institute of Technology's Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development. The report summarizes recent literature and places current megaregion research within the context of both previous regional planning investments in infrastructure and greater focus on environmental preservation, including climate change. Currently published studies suggest the existence of as many as ten megaregions, all including multiple cities and most crossing state borders, in the United States, with some reaching into neighboring countries. Since 2005, annual roundtables concerning megaregion development have brought together leading urban and regional planners, academics, metropolitan policy- makers, elected officials, and business and civic leaders to discuss efforts at megaregion coordination and planning framing a new direction.

Megaregions are places that operate-and thrive-at the center of a new economic and planning geography, one in which high value is placed on networks and on building attractive and healthy urban areas. The exact nature of regional functional relationships and interactions can be difficult to measure (Hoover, 1971). However, planning at an inter-jurisdictional level, with an emphasis on how economic and network interactions are set in a spatial context, could lead to more efficient public investments resulting in increased global economic competitiveness. Currently state or local governments compete against each other for funds and projects. The megaregion, in contrast, offers a framework for inter-jurisdiction cooperation. Since infrastructure serves as the skeleton that links towns, cities, neighborhoods, and regions, and since transportation has historically proved advantageous to cities and regions alike (Fujita et al. 2001), it is particularly worthwhile to consider transportation planning and investment at the scale of the megaregion.

A historical perspective on regional planning Historically, regional planning efforts have originated at the state level, which have been very limited in scope, or imposed by the federal government. Examples of federal regional planning in the United States include the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), and the highway system. There have been few cases of successful ambitious "bottom-up efforts at regional planning and investment coordination.

Economic development remains one of the more popular spurs to regional activity (Weitz & Seltzer, 1998). Cisneros (1996) distinguished between "things- regionalism, which he identified as special districts charged with specific public-works projects, and what he called "people- regionalism, which focused on equity issues and regional development. "Everybody wins as regions become global competitors, he asserted. An example of a regional body focused on economic development is the Southern Growth Policies Board, which was formed in 1971 and has 13 states1 as members among its regional goals are encouraging entrepreneurship, increasing knowledge creation, and sustaining a quality of life "that is attractive to globally competitive businesses and employees (Southern Growth Policies Board, n.d.). But while such organizations as the Southern Growth Policies Board may be able to produce useful research, their influence on economic-development policies is unclear.

Another frequent source of cooperation between states is environmental issues, especially water. Water can be a source of interstate conflict (most recently among Georgia, Florida, and Alabama), but the boundary-crossing nature of water management has been acknowledged multiple times. Lepawsky (1950) observed, "Few functions of the American Federal system seem less suited physically to state boundaries than the management of our water resources. In 1961, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) was formed by four states (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware) and the federal government. Although elsewhere in the world, transportation investment is being approached regionally by both federal governments and local actors. Examples of regional infrastructure planning emerging from the coordinated efforts of local actors include the Randstad or "Deltametropolis in the Netherlands and transport planning in the Yangtze River delta in China. Megaregions represent an opportunity for the United States to create regionally cooperative efforts with enough local buy-in to be able to make informed decisions.

Derthick (1974) charged that "[t]he DRBC's actual functions have fallen far short of its formal powers, the DRBC has been influential in settling water-related disputes between the participating states (Collier, 2007).

Megaregions provide a strategy to act globally, while addressing local quality-of-life issues.

In addition, transportation can spur interstate cooperation. Grant (1955) called the creation of the Holland Tunnel "an amazing example of stop-and-go driving through the obstacle course of interstate metropolitan co-operation. The commission to study transport connections between New York City and New Jersey was proposed by the New York state legislature in 1906; construction on the tunnel did not begin until 1919 (Grant, 1955). The tunnel was actually governed by two different state commissions simultaneously until 1931, when it was placed under the governance of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (Grant, 1955). However, such examples as the ongoing New York-New Jersey cooperation are rare in American policy- making.

From regions to megaregions Why do we need planning at this larger scale? Economic and social interactions are taking place at the megaregion scale beyond the boundaries of either individual municipalities or metropolitan areas (Zhang et al., 2007). The megaregion presents a new perspective on defining regionalism that captures the economic, political and spatial level at which planning should be conducted in order to respond to the challenges of agglomerations of economic activity and population. It also recognizes the new context in which large-scale regions exist-one of global economic and environmental issues taking place on a larger scale. Megaregions provide a strategy to act globally, while addressing local quality-of-life issues. This expanded regional footprint is a vehicle for accommodating growth and economic development through collaborative megaregional transportation planning and other infrastructure, policy, implementation, and operations. Similar cooperative initiatives in infrastructure investment and economic development are beginning both in Asia and Europe.

Since approximately 80 percent of the world's carbon emissions are produced from urbanized areas (Aitch, 2007), it is reasonable to assume that megaregions have a significant impact on the increase of carbon emissions and climate change. At the same time, this means that the megaregion approach is a potential solution to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions by adopting coordinated policies on land use, transport pricing, and freight transportation. Also, regional coordination under megaregion planning could help adapt existing and new transportation infrastructure to the demands of more extreme climate events.

Megaregions will experience key challenges in the coming decades, including: rapid population growth, expansion of suburban landscapes, aging infrastructure, social equity challenges, strained ecosystems, and uneven inter- and intra-regional growth patterns. Many megaregion areas in the United States are already faced with issues stemming from sprawling development patterns, escalating land consumption, and increased traffic congestion. It is expected that these areas will continue to grow in population and the potential addition of millions of residents will only exacerbate existing problems in metropolitan and regional planning for these regions (National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, 2007). These issues have several things in common: they are spatial; they are not confined by existing political boundaries; they affect future generations; and they are interrelated (Ross et al., 2007).

As United States megaregions grow, will they remain competitive in the changing global marketplace? Will they be places in which residents can enjoy stable and comfortable lives? Will there be sufficient transportation choices? Can continued growth and development occur in a sustainable manner? If these areas continue to form without planning, will this create a nation whose global competitiveness is threatened by social and environmental problems? These challenges reach across traditional jurisdictional boundaries, making the current planning strategies inadequate and demanding a new planning perspective (Contant et al., 2005).

Current economic development planning tends to ignore the spatial distribution of impacts caused by investments and programs. Local comprehensive planning is spatial in focus and concept, but is also shaped by parochial interests, ignoring the cumulative effects of many individual decisions on the surrounding region. Transportation planning connects regions, but fails to address adequately the land use and environmental impacts of infrastructure decisions. Other single- function planning efforts, such as watershed planning or energy development planning, are also incapable of fully addressing the issues that affect the entire region. Most importantly, current planning, whether it is guided by an issue or by proximity, lacks a common vision. Although researchers, planners, engineers, politicians, and decision-makers each appreciate the interconnectedness of issues by content and by space, they currently have no guiding vision of what the future should hold, and no plan to get there. The megaregion, integrating a better understanding of the connections and operation of these systems, provides a more effective strategy.

Megaregions and infrastructure The supply of infrastructure has not met increasing demand. More attention and resources must be allocated to providing mobility within critical corridors including the interstate highway system. This is particularly true in urban areas, since their vitality is crucial with respect to global competition and due to rapid increase in travel demand during the past several decades. Large metropolitan areas continuously expand connecting to other urban areas, sharing transportation networks and environmental systems at a large geographic scale making its management difficult for any individual metro region. Interstate highways within megaregions are currently more congested than many of those in non-megaregions with fewer miles of highway per capita.

Schwieterman & Scheidt (2007) indicate that about 63% of the proposed mileage for High Speed Rail (HSR) service is included in HSR corridors that cross state lines. All but one of the 43 states containing routes under consideration for HSR service has interstate corridors slated for consideration. 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. In fact, some corridors, such as the Chicago-Detroit-Pontiac corridor, are divided into several segments reflecting differences in operations and in management/ownership. These segmentations may negatively affect both the development process and future operations in the long run.

While the freight transportation system includes a complex network of roads, rail, water, and air, more than half of exporting goods were moved by trucks in 2002. This trend is expected to continue over the next few decades.

The reliance on trucking is higher in megaregions than non-megaregions. The congestion caused by truck traffic on highways may negatively affect economic productivity, increasing the costs of goods movements and generating problems for production schedules. Since these trends are estimated to continue or worsen in the future, a strategic approach to development of freight transportation infrastructure in megaregions, focusing on highways and alternative modes should be considered.

In order to prepare a strategy to effectively face these challenges, the demands of freight movements, the types of infrastructure that efficiently meet these demands, and the geographic areas where these demands will increase should be researched by analyzing the characteristics (e.g. commodity groups) of goods and their possible transportation modes for each megaregion.

At the same time, an effort to protect environmentally sensitive areas and ecosystems from the encroachment of transportation infrastructure should be made. The concept of a green highway that connects "green infrastructure may bridge the gap between the transportation networks and environmental systems by more fully integrating the concept of sustainability into transportation planning and practice.

To address economic competitiveness in the global economy and preservation of environments into the interstate planning and programming process, a megaregions context is extremely promising.

Megaregions in the United States and abroad Throughout the country, large-scale regional efforts are underway to examine the relationships, challenges, and opportunities that unite people across jurisdictional boundaries. One of these is a new initiative which has been launched to address America's anticipated growth before the year 2050 and the challenges and opportunities associated with the emergence of megaregions. This initiative, "America 2050: Towards a National Strategy for Prosperity, Equity and Sustainability was coordinated by the Regional Plan Association, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, and the Southern California Association of Governments and was comprised of ground-up megaregion research, planning, and coordination efforts taking place in ten of the emerging megaregions across the country.

Since 2005, annual Roundtables for Megaregion Development have brought together leading urban and regional planners, academics, metropolitan planning directors, elected officials, and business and civic leaders to share progress reports, research methods, and strategies on megaregion coordination as well as to discuss nation-wide policies that underpin these efforts. The Roundtables included setting goals for America 2050 for each year and discussions of leadership and the strategic path of the initiative.

The Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development (CQGRD) at the Georgia Institute of Technology convened federal and state legislators, mayors, public- and private-sector representatives, academics, and other community leaders in a symposium in 2006, in order to provide a broad initial overview of the concepts of megaregions and megaregion planning. In 2007, CQGRD hosted the second symposium, an assembly of academics, to discuss and examine the theoretical constructs surrounding megaregions.

Megaregions: Literature Review of the Implications for U.S. Infrastructure Investment and Transportation Planning describes several megaregions that are currently being defined and researched through different initiatives within the United States. They include the Piedmont Atlantic Megaregion (PAM), the Northeast Megaregions, Northern California, Southern California, the Great Lakes Megaregion, and the Texas Triangle Megaregion.

The cases examined in this literature review suggest that interest in regional approaches to infrastructure and transportation planning is not limited to the North American megaregions. Regional coordination of infrastructure investments is increasingly regarded as a way to

than any one of its member states could suggest, but control of funding remains with the member states. It is difficult to predict at this stage whether the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) Spatial Development Initiatives and the Philippine super regions will be implemented as proposed. However, NEPAD would not be able to control the direction of infrastructure investments in its 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 member countries, and the Philippine super- region project may suffer from its association with an unpopular president. The most successful cases appear to be those where local actors take the lead, as in the Yangtze River Delta and the Randstad. Since 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.

The United States is expected to continue to grow. Future planners and policy-makers will have to decide how best to provide economic opportunities, safe and healthy environments, and adequate infrastructure.

What is most striking about the cases outside the United States, when compared to the cases within 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 scope to propose a transportation network far more ambitious China's state government has empowered cities to decide on and finance major infrastructure investments, further regional efforts in China may 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. Yet the federal programs-the TVA, the highway system, and to a lesser extent the ARC- have been accused of not being sufficiently sensitive to regional needs. 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 megaregion framework. The international examples show how local actors can recognize common needs and coordinate infrastructure planning in hopes of bettering the region.

Informing the future The United States is expected to continue to grow, in terms of population and in terms of economic activity, and future professionals and policy-makers will have to decide how best to provide that

population with economic opportunities, safe and healthy environments, and adequate infrastructure. Megaregions offer a way to support these important agglomerations. While the megaregions identified to date differ in infrastructure needs, demography, economy, regional growth, geography, history, and culture, megaregion leaders in each have the opportunity to refine their approach to develop different strategies to preserve the strengths of the respective megaregions and enhance their future competitiveness. Nonetheless, the articulation of each megaregion and the concept of the "megaregion as an economic and population agglomeration is increasingly important and may prove to be vital to the United States in its ongoing challenge to preserve its stature in the global economy.


1 Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Updated: 09/19/2013
HEP Home Planning Environment Real Estate
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000