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

Events Guidance Publications Awards Contacts

Growth patterns and urban relationships between metropolitan areas in the United States and international metropolitan areas are shifting toward the inclusion of a new structure reflected in the concept of the megacity-regions or the megaregion. While this new spatial structure provides a wealth of possible benefits that stem from the agglomeration of activities, it is also faced with many challenges especially in effectively planning for the supporting infrastructure needs of these regions, which ultimately influences their prosperity.

The fragmented political structure in which transportation planning occurs in the United States was at one time more responsive to existing economic and mobility needs and was more localized in nature. However, due to population and economic growth, urban area expansion and increased relationships between urban areas and regions which are supported by progressive economic, communication and infrastructure connections, planners are faced with addressing problems that are system-related and thus cannot be spatially constrained to the political boundaries of a city, a county, or even to a single state.

This research explored how planning and investment decisions might be approached differently to provide more regional or national infrastructure systems that are supportive of the needs of the megaregion.This new planning structure, explored at the scale of the megaregion, is not proposed to replace other approaches to planning at the local or regional level but instead it is intended to add to the tools available to practitioners, authorities and policy makers so that more effective planning and investment decisions can be made. As a preliminary step to suggesting a new planning framework or process for the megaregion, this report has identified the transportation challenges that the megaregion faces, the current approaches to transportation planning, and new or adaptive approaches to transportation planning that have occurred over time that are reflected in the organizations, projects or programs that were reviewed.

The identification of "best practices" of multi-jurisdictional or coordinated and collaborative planning efforts through assessment of the literature and case reviews, indicates that professionals have been trying to adapt to the changing planning environment for some time now. This study adds to these activities through a more comprehensive look at the issues, and at practices that are useful in establishing a more formal functional framework.

Planning that looks beyond jurisdictional boundaries has become more evident today, however, through a review of cases it is apparent that the planning community has been slowly adapting its approach to address these problems for some time. The evolution of the metropolitan planning organization (MPO) is reflective of how transportation planning has tried to adapt to the changing planning environment. The roles and the responsibilities undertaken by MPOs in some cases go beyond addressing transportation issues to include land-use planning, project selection and implementation, transit operations, and environmental issues, including air quality and water management.

MPOs, as reflected in the Florida case, have realized that planning areas have begun to overlap with the growth and expansion of urbanized areas. Thus, the planning decisions made in one locale are very responsive to the decisions made in adjacent urbanized areas. Acknowledging that transportation issues are more regional in nature, Florida's authorities have supported and encouraged MPOs to work together or coordinate their planning efforts to address regional problems. As a result of this, many of the MPOs in the State of Florida have partnered with adjacent MPOs or have formed regional MPO alliances. The Florida DOT also fosters strong communication with its MPOs, and as a result, has been very active in promoting such collaborations. The State has also created, within the Florida DOT, the Transportation Regional Incentive Program (TRIP) which makes state funds available to entities that formally collaborate on transportation projects that are of regional significance. This incentive program has encouraged collaboration in transportation planning. Regional MPOs in the state have also suggested that the MPO has its place in representing the local interests of residents, and as such, does not support the idea of consolidation. Through increased collaboration and coordination, they believe that both regional and local goals can be achieved.

In many of the cases reviewed, it is apparent that planning at the regional level needs to promote or establish a regional identity. The Arizona Sun Corridor, the Central Florida Region, Randstad and Oresund all reference the need for a region to establish a concrete regional identity. By creating an identity, local authorities can see themselves as part of something greater which contributes to creating a sense of ownership, and identifies their respective responsibilities in achieving a regional vision. In the Central Florida Region and the Sun Corridor, many reports, studies and community outreach efforts are focused on creating a regional brand. These activities have achieved an outcome that is two-fold. First, they have caused local citizens, businesses, organizations and government officials to "buy in" to the vision, which has promoted increased collaboration between groups. It has also made a region think critically about its regional resources and how to best present its competitive advantage to the global marketplace. This culture of collaboration will be very important in planning for regional transportation and infrastructure needs. How this paradigm shift occurs will be important moving forward.

The research completed to date suggests that merging or consolidating the operation of MPOs or similar organizations into a megaregion level organization may be neither possible nor desirable. As shown in the case of Florida, regional organizations are more supportive of regional coordination when they can maintain their respective identities. In the case of establishing Oresund Region, cross country integration is regulated with "governance without government". This framework promotes "governance" which tries to establish a set of rules and norms that defines practices, assigns roles and responsibilities, and guides interactions between organizations, in order to tackle collective problems".

Consistent with this, it is suggested that the megaregion scale needs to build the new governance with public and private partnerships and cross-sectoral alliances to pursue common vision and interests of the regions. Here, federal leadership that can link and coordinate these fragmented actors and multi-scale decision making systems is essential;, and a mechanism that defines the federal role, and delineates activities and goals, can be forged into the megaregion governance and planning structure.In addition, the report proposes that an incentive funding system, provided at the federal level, might be used to support projects and initiatives that cross jurisdictions and address regional interests. Such incentive funding may encourage megaregion efforts as suggested in this report.

The identification of common interests, and potential challenges confronting megaregions is important to the successful delineation of a proposed megaregion governance and project implementation structure. In addition to transportation, other sectors, such as energy and the environment outlined in the cases of the Northwest Power Planning Council, and the Transportation and Climate Initiative, can be well addressed at the megaregion scale. Also, these sectors are closely related to transportation planning.

Current assessment suggests that the spatial boundaries of megaregions are not necessarily rigid blueprints. In fact, different criteria may be employed to accomplish different program objectives and goals.They are not only malleable based on regional growth and prosperity, but also should include some capacity for flexibility depending on the planning purposes. Different purposes, such as environmental, economic development, and transportation planning by mode, require different criteria to delineate and operate within megaregions.

In addition, two major challenges megaregions currently face are an increasing demand on vital corridors within megaregions that are already suffering crippling congestion, and fragmented planning systems that discourage regions from working together to address common problems and opportunities. In particular, more than half of megaregions have dispersed planning boundaries of MPOs. However, an opportunity is created by the fact that megaregions are defined by agglomerations of similar economic activity, transportation links, and cultural similarities that can help regions easily identify their common goals and identities.

Updated: 11/19/2015
HEP Home Planning Environment Real Estate
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000