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

Section III. A Historical and Contemporary Perspective

Attempts to explain and plan for the United States from a regional perspective have a long history. The earliest attempt to divide the United States into administrative "regions" took place within the 1850 census, in which educational statistics were presented for five geographical divisions (Barnes & Ledebur, 1998). In the 1960s, Rexford Tugwell, one of the preeminent national planners of Franklin Roosevelt's administration, proposed splitting the country into twelve regions for federal administrative purposes (Barnes & Ledebur, 1998). And in 1981 Joel Garreau argued that North America was actually "nine nations", with differing economic, political, and cultural emphases, and that thinking in terms of these nine regions would lead to better public-policy choice (Garreau, 1981).

Although regional delineation is thus not an uncommon endeavor in the United States, it is frequently alleged that attempts at regional governance or regional planning have not prospered. The late 1970s to early 1990s, in particular, saw a sharp decrease in interest in regionalism (Weitz & Seltzer, 1998). Ekbladh (2002) sums up the case against regional organizations in the United States:

They regularly do not deliver on their grand promises and can have unintended and drastic social, environmental, and economic impacts. Too often, detractors assert, the imposition of these vast undertakings hurt the people in their path as the grand, "high-modernist" visions at the core of these programs ignore people's needs, values, experiences, and knowledge.

Any new regional planning effort must overcome the distrust of regional approaches that has resulted from past endeavors. In contrast to popular skepticism, Swanstrom (2001) argues that regionalism can help promote and strengthen three political virtues central to American democracy - political equality, civic tolerance, and local liberty. Regionalism, he suggests, can help ameliorate the substantial differences in economic and political power between wealthy suburbanites and poor urban residents: "If Americans are going to be persuaded to embrace the new regionalism and create more civic metropolises, it will... be because regional reforms enhance deeply-held political values." In this Swanstrom lays down, one could say, a challenge for future regionalist initiatives to work within the existing shared political values.

The following are overviews of previous regional planning efforts as they relate to transportation. We first discuss what issues in planning have been most often addressed by regionalism. We then proceed to review the history of several regional organizations - the Regional Plan Association, the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and metropolitan planning organizations - to examine "regionalism" and how it works in practice in each case. In addition, we review federal highway planning, which was not initially conceived as a distinct regional effort, to better understand the degree to which regional concerns were incorporated into the planning process.

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A. History of Regional Planning in the United States

Historically regional planning efforts have either emerged as the result of interstate compacts or have begun at the federal level. Some of the examples of federal regional planning - the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the Appalachian Regional Commission, and the highway system - will be covered later in this review. These regional efforts are well known nationally; yet it is still worthwhile to examine less famous cases of multi-state collaboration.

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 states15 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. To be sure, water can be a source of inter-state 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 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).

Finally, 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.

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1. The Regional Plan Association (RPA)

The Regional Plan Association (RPA), the oldest American regional body, was founded in 1922 and produced its first plan for the greater New York City metropolitan area in 1929. Since then it has produced two other plans, in 1968 and 1996. The first two plans had a strong influence on the shape of the affected region, which now includes New York City and 26 additional counties in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut (Bressi, 1991). In addition to producing regional plans, which include recommendations on transportation, housing, community space, and economic activity, the RPA facilitates planning projects in the area and conducts relevant research. Recently the RPA has convened the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York, which is dedicated to an open and fair planning process for lower Manhattan in the wake of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center (Civic Alliance, n.d.) Of all the non-profit planning organizations in the United States, the RPA is almost certainly the most powerful.

The RPA currently has projects in five policy areas: housing; community design; open space; workforce and the economy; and transportation. While its main office is in New York City, it keeps offices in Connecticut and New Jersey and a representative on Long Island. Its governance is led by a 60-member board, assisted by advisory Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut committees (RPA, n.d.). The RPA's annual Regional Assembly offers community members the chance to participate in workshops related to the main policy areas. In this way the RPA is able to form and strengthen relationships with local stakeholders.

The RPA is able to have an influence on policy by creating and sustaining a planning process with a high level of stakeholder involvement. Bressi (1991) describes the process that began the development of the RPA's third plan:

The project was launched officially at a regional assembly in April. The day-long event drew some 1,000 participants, who met in workshops and small-group discussions. To oversee the plan, [then-president Richard] Anderson and [chief planner Robert] Yaro have corralled more than 120 business, civic, foundation, and labor leaders in a group called the Council for the Region Tomorrow. For technical advice, the RPA is convening 20 to 25 "round tables" of experts in such fields as housing, open space, and communications technology.

At the time, Bressi (1991) also noted that "federal interest in urban projects has waned" and Yaro was, at the time, having difficulty raising the $10 million needed to complete the planning process (Bressi, 1991). Since then, political leaders have shown a greater interest in regionalism. The RPA served on the advisory board for PlaNYC, the plan released by New York City's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, in June 2007 (RPA, 2007). It also finished the fiscal year with net assets of more than $2 million (RPA, 2007). Finally, the agency was able to boast that "The past twelve months may well have been the most impressive year to date for realizing the ambitious transportation agenda laid out in RPA's 1996 Third Regional Plan" (RPA, 2007). The RPA does not have the financial influence wielded by metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs). Yet its influence seems to be increasing, not decreasing, as a result in changes in regional political thinking.

It is worth asking why the RPA has been successful where regional efforts elsewhere in the country have not been able to last as long, or accomplish as much. The RPA has the advantage of having been founded more than 80 years ago, at a time when the interstate nature of traffic and economic flows into and out of New York City were already being recognized (Baker, 1927). The RPA also probably benefited from having been established before the Depression, thus spending the 1930s under a president who had previously been governor of New York and who took an interest in planning unmatched until Lyndon Johnson's administration. The RPA is a private sector organization with a relatively greater amount of independence than what has been afforded other regional planning entities in the public sector. Moreover, the RPA's independent nature may have helped it to weather the collapse in federal funding for planning programs in the late 1970s and 1980s. Finally, the RPA covers a region in which political actors have historically been more willing to act regionally, possibly due to historic development patterns and the fact that surrounding areas have had centuries to acknowledge and come to terms with the dominance of New York City. Thus the region has produced not only the RPA but the Port Authority and the Delaware River Basin Commission, of which both New York and New Jersey are members. This is not to diminish the RPA's accomplishments, but to suggest that it would be difficult to create a similarly influential organization elsewhere in the country.

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2. The Tennessee Valley Authority

Probably the best-known American regional project is the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). As of late 2007 TVA was managing 293,000 acres of public land and providing power, by selling power to local distributors, to 8.7 million people in seven states (TVA, 2007).

The TVA was created by the federal government in 1933 to improve navigability and flood control of the Tennessee River. It was a "top-down" creation, put forward by Franklin Roosevelt soon after his taking office as president. Derthick (1974) argues that the creation of the TVA succeeded while similar proposals of regional governing failed because of unique circumstances: the federal government's ownership of two nitrate plants near Muscle Shoals, Alabama; the decision to form a public corporation to operate those plants; and Roosevelt's personal interest in the project.

In its creation, the TVA was charged with regional economic development responsibilities. The Tennessee Valley Act, the legislation that created the TVA, specified six general purposes: flood control, development of the Tennessee River, generation of electric power, use of marginal lands, reforestation, and maintaining or promoting the economic and social well-being of residents of the river basin (Taylor, 1938). The TVA's economic development branch offers loans to entrepreneurs via its Economic Development Loan Fund, hosts conferences on rural development, keeps a separate $16 million fund for loans to the area's most economically distressed counties, and offers technical and economic development analysis services to firms thinking of locating within the TVA's service area (TVA, n.d.).

As of 2003 the agency carried $25 billion in debt and many of its coal plants needed further upgrading (The Economist, 2003). Nonetheless, the TVA can be judged a relative success in terms of power provision. How it has fared as a regional body is a more open question. David Lilienthal, one of the TVA's original board members, initially championed a "grass-roots" approach to management, which called for the utilization of local institutions, put a high value on public participation in the decision-making process, and allowed for employees in the field to make decisions (Derthick, 1974; Ekbladh, 2002). Lilienthal saw the TVA as a shining example of inclusive development (Ekbladh, 2002). Yet the agency actually acted in a relatively autonomous fashion (Derthick, 1974) and the "grass-roots" rhetoric did not match operations (Ekbladh, 2002).

In short, judging the TVA as a regional body requires considering the goals of regionalism. While the TVA has been efficient at long-term power provision and land management, and continues to play an economic-development role in the region, it cannot be considered a truly "regional" body, if regionalism implies multiple actors, local and regional, participating in regional decision-making.

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3. The Appalachian Regional Commission

The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) was originally convened in 1965. It grew out of fortuitous political alliances, both at the state level - the Conference of Appalachian Governors had issued an appeal for political help in 1960 - and at the federal level: John F. Kennedy's presidential bid had included a crucial early primary win in West Virginia, augmenting his interest in the region (Derthick, 1974). But the ARC was not established by Congress until the Democratic Party had won control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, two years after Kennedy's death (Derthick, 1974). Unlike other agencies, the ARC has functioned more as a multi-state economic development, transportation and social-service funding agency than as an organization concerned primarily with planning. Planning functions have been left largely in the individual states' hands.

At present the ARC has 14 members: the governors of each of the 13 states16 and one federal co-chair, appointed by the president and subject to Senate confirmation (ARC, n.d.(a)). State program managers are appointed by the governors. The 410 counties covered by the ARC are grouped into 72 Local Development Districts (LDDs), which do multi-county planning and development (ARC, n.d.(b)). The ARC currently defines its role as having four primary components:

Thus it could be said that, while not a transportation planning agency in and of itself, the ARC helps member states and localities with their planning projects.

Isserman and Rephann (1995) used a matched-county study to evaluate the long-run economic effects of the ARC-funded investments. They found that between 1965 and 1991, the growth rates of the Appalachian counties were greater than that of their non-Appalachian matches; the total income growth differences, in 1991, added up to $8.4 billion. The difference held even after the authors controlled for racial composition. Isserman and Rephann (1995) specified that they were not examining the ARC "as a political innovation or a planning institution" and did not speculate as to how the ARC might have contributed to the growth of member counties. Nevertheless, they found significant enough differences in economic growth to conclude that the ARC has helped to improve economic growth in member counties.

Thus while the ARC has accomplished its objectives, and can be counted as one of the few success stories in the history of American regionalism, it is not, and has never been, a locus for regional transport planning. Gauthier (1973) criticized ARC-funded highway construction as lacking a regional basis for coordinated development. "The Appalachian Development Highway System," Gauthier wrote, "is neither a highway network nor a regional system." Derthick thought similarly: "In sum, the commission has generally been able to arrive at adjustments of the states' separate interests... It has not sought to achieve subordination of the states' interests to the common good of the region" (Derthick, 1974).

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4. National Highway Planning

An examination of the creation of the national highway system is worthwhile to better understand how the different goals of the federal government, states, and cities were incorporated into the process. This is in fact a major consideration for megaregion planning. Few transportation projects have matched the ambition and scale of the national highway system, first mulled over by Roosevelt in 1935. Highway planning was not conceived as a regional effort - transportation planning was largely left to the states because transportation facilities and services were managed by state and local agencies (Weiner, 1997), until the idea of a federal "superhighway" system was introduced under Roosevelt's administration (Mertz, 2006). Under Roosevelt, the highway program was briefly designed as "interregional," but Congressional members who heartily disliked Roosevelt insisted that the word "interregional" be removed before the 1944 bill on highways could be brought before Congress (Weingroff, 2000).

Under the Roosevelt administration, highway spending was framed not only as an employment-creation program or an economic stimulant, but as a solution to particularly urban problems. In 1937 the National Resources Planning Committee presented a report to Roosevelt, "Our Cities," which identified fourteen emerging urban problems, including a deterioration of the urban housing stock, public-health threats, and "drastic inequalities of income and wealth" (Mertz, 2005). The report included an assertion that new forms of transportation - the passenger car, the truck, and the airplane - would "affect the national distribution of our urban centers and even the local pattern of our cities" (Mertz, 2005). The report recommended the establishment of a national planning board, a federal public-works authority, and a new national transport policy in the service of urban development (Mertz, 2005).

Thomas H. MacDonald, chief of the Bureau of Public Roads from 1919 to 1953, was the driving force behind two reports, one produced in 1939 and a second in 1944, which conceived of federal highway transportation in terms of regional and urban needs. It was MacDonald who originally coined the term "interregional" after a national data-collection effort led him to conclude that most automotive traffic in the United States was regional, not transcontinental (Weingroff, 2000). The 1944 report, Interregional Highways, called for coordinating highway planning with other urban interests, including housing authorities, city planners, airport officials, and other agencies with a vested interest in the shape of the city (Weingroff, 2000; Weiner, 1997). It would be a mistake to call MacDonald a participatory planner, or a transportation planner not subject to the prejudices of his time: one of his goals was to coordinate highway building with federal slum clearance. But he envisioned the highway system in a way that integrated it more deeply with urban needs than has been the case since 1956.

Other advocates of a national highway system also supported greater planning integration. In 1954, speaking before AASHO (later AASHTO), Representative George Dondero, in calling for AASHO to support President Eisenhower's newly proposed highway-funding plan, said:

It's not only the city folk who will benefit from improved urban highways. They will help the farmer in getting his produce to market, and facilitate the social and cultural pursuits of his family. The whole business is a two-way street, economically and every other way, for every segment of our people.

All this emphasizes the need for cooperative thinking and planning - for a close working partnership between all levels of government. (Mertz, 2006)

But the political battles over the proposed highway funding led to a shift in highway planning, away from its ties with urban revitalization. In 1957 Lewis Mumford gave a blistering criticism of the new Federal Highway Administration: "We are faced, it is fairly obvious to me, with the blunders of one-dimensional thinking... and forgetting the realities that surround us" (Weingroff, 2000). Mumford was especially incensed that the new head of what is now the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Federal Housing Administrator had not met until September 1957, more than a year after Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act (Weingroff, 2000). That same act had included no provisions for urban highways and some have called attention to the omission of urban highways in the legislation. Subsequently, the national highway system moved away from "one-dimensional thinking" in planning transportation to incorporate the impacts of the federal highway system on urban life or local environments. Currently, the Federal Register requires State Departments of Transportation, MPOs and other public transportation operators to conduct comprehensive and coordinated transportation planning in metropolitan areas and States (Federal Register, 2007).

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5. Metropolitan Planning Organizations

Metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) have existed in the United States since the 1950s (Sanchez & Wolf, 2005), but have become increasingly important in transportation planning since the 1973 Surface Transportation Assistance Act specified that urbanized areas with populations of 50,000 or greater create MPOs to facilitate the transportation-planning process. There are now 384 MPOs and could be more than 400 after the 2010 census (TRB, 2006). While the size and scope of MPOs vary - the Charlotte metropolitan area has five MPOs, while the Atlanta Regional Commission does transportation planning for as many as 22 counties within the metropolitan area - each MPO has the same broad mandate: to ensure that the local use of federal transportation funds was determined by a planning process that was continuing, cooperative, and comprehensive (known as the "three Cs") (Glassman, n.d.). As such, MPOs are the closest the transportation-planning process in the United States to implement "regional" decision-making.

The Intermodal Surface Transportation and Equity Act (ISTEA), enacted in 1991, substantially increased the responsibilities, and power, of MPOs. ISTEA provided transportation funds directly to MPOs, but required them to prepare 20-year regional transportation plans and three-year Transportation Improvement Plans (TIPs). The act also made some changes to the structure of MPOs, requiring that representatives of local governments and state officials be included on the boards of MPOs governing large areas, requiring greater citizen involvement, and establishing criteria for the MPOs to use in reviewing transportation programs (Sanchez & Wolf, 2005).

Nonetheless, the structure and composition of MPOs vary widely. A survey by Sanchez & Wolf (2005) found the number of board members on an MPO could be as low as seven, for the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council, and as high as 92, for the Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission in Ohio. Sanchez and Wolf also found that the rule of "one area, one vote" led to overrepresentation of suburban areas on many MPO boards, and noted that previous research has suggested that more suburban votes on MPO boards leads to less money being allocated for transit. The priorities of an MPO, as well as its board structure, are often influenced by jurisdiction patterns and local politics.

Goldman & Deakin (2000) suggest that "[t]he lack of representativeness of MPO boards may pose a real obstacle to their ability to acquire strong powers for regional government." Only one MPO in the country that of Portland, Oregon, has its board members directly elected. Some MPOs have been able to balance the new demands under ISTEA with their lack of direct power by forming partnerships with state transportation agencies, other MPOs (especially in cases where several different MPOs served one larger metropolitan region) and non-governmental organizations (Goldman & Deakin, 2000). Certain MPOs, such as the Metropolitan Council of Minneapolis and St. Paul, have been able to achieve higher levels of citizen involvement and inter-agency cooperation. However, partnerships are often reluctant, and "in a number of regions key actors, public and private, remain opposed to a strong MPO role" (Goldman & Deakin, 2000).

A 2006 conference on MPOs concluded with a sort of "wish list" for future MPO actions. It called for MPOs with:

This list highlights both the potential and the limitations of the MPO. A well-managed, well-funded, and well-regarded MPO can incorporate regional needs into local transportation planning. Yet most MPOs must still answer to local political forces which may not be willing or able to advocate regional policies. For the moment, the MPO is confined to the funding of one metropolitan area, although inter-MPO partnerships may encourage polycentric regional planning.

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6. Conclusions

As we have seen, regional planning initiatives in the United States have traditionally come in one of two ways: created at the federal level and imposed upon the affected states, or agreed to by the states themselves. Generally, the former have tended to be more far-reaching, more ambitious, and more successful than the latter. Yet creating regional initiatives at the federal level begs questions of local representation. The TVA does not answer to the affected states. The Appalachian Regional Commission, by contrast, devolves planning power to the states, and thus, while it functions well as an economic-development facilitator, has had more trouble achieving goals to help the region as a whole. Meanwhile, inter-state compacts have traditionally been relatively limited in their scope and influence. The exception to this dichotomy, the Regional Plan Association, has been able to influence planning and policy making in its area, in part because of fortunate social, political, and historical forces.

The major challenge for future regional efforts will be to combine the effectiveness of federally-proposed initiatives with the cooperative nature of interstate compacts. In this the MPOs, which receive (and, perhaps more importantly, control) federal funding yet must be attentive to local concerns, may be the best model for future regional efforts. It must be noted, however, that MPOs struggle with issues of scale. A large MPO, such as the Atlanta Regional Commission, may have more local clout but may struggle with its ability to speak for a multiplicity of groups. A smaller MPO, such as those in the Charlotte metropolitan area, will be able to work more easily with local groups, yet will have difficulty exerting much influence over larger issues. The questions of governance and representations are tricky ones which must be part of any regional-planning discussion.


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

16 Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Updated: 09/19/2013
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