Ours is a nation of 50 states. Remember those maps that used to hang in fourth-grade classrooms? Remember memorizing, or trying to remember, the capitals of all of them?
Colorado is a state of 64 counties, every one of which Sen. Michael Bennet has visited in a frantic effort to assure the voters that yep, he’s a Colorado boy.
Mark Muro, the director of the metropolitan policy program at the Brookings Institute, suggests that we ought to forget all about states, counties and almost every other political subdivision.
We’re not a country of 50 states, or a state of 64 counties.
“The United States is a metropolitan nation in a metropolitan world,” Muro told a group of visitors from Colorado Springs who were in Washington, D.C., this week. “We see the nation as a network of 364 metropolitan areas — and states are an impediment to this structure.”
Last April, Brookings published a study, which was presented at the annual “State of the Rockies” symposium at Colorado College. The study concluded that the five states of the Intermountain West (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada and Arizona) are each dominated by a single “megapolitan” area.
Colorado’s megalopolis is defined as the Front Range corridor.
It includes the entire Interstate 25 corridor from the Wyoming line south to Colorado Springs, ending at the boundary between El Paso and Pueblo counties. It contains 80 percent of the state’s population, and generates 86 percent of Colorado’s gross domestic product.
The stats for the other “Mountain Megas” are similar.
In Utah, the “Wasatch Front” includes the I-15 corridor from Logan to Salt Lake, while Arizona’s “Sun Corridor” comprises metropolitan Phonenix, Tucson, and Prescott. In Nevada, it’s greater Las Vegas, and New Mexico is dominated by the Albuquerque/Santa Fe axis.
These are the facts on the ground — the realities of geography and demography. When described, they seem unremarkable — so what’s the big deal?
The problem, Muro said, is that politicians still believe in the maps. They still remember that fourth-grade classroom, and they believe that concepts such as “Colorado,” “Delaware” and “Arizona” are as real, as tangible and as important as the metropolitan areas that happen to be located within these cartographic abstractions.
“There’s an incredible chasm,” Muro said, “between metropolitan needs and what Congress is talking about.”
Muro’s right. As he implies, federal programs that are designed to spur economic development, or provide budgetary relief to state programs, are almost invariably channeled through state bureaucracies. Vast amounts of paperwork are required, money is dribbled out over multi-year cycles and no meaningful metrics are employed to determine success or failure.
“That’s not a grown-up way to do business,” Muro said. “Government should lead, empower and then get out of the way. Don’t fund paperwork, fund results.”
Things work that way because … well, because that’s the way they work. Sluggish bureaucracies, mired in inertia, rule-bound and tethered to our grand governmental abstractions, pretty much run things.
What’s the solution?
A pessimist would say that there isn’t one. An optimist would hope that the still-new Obama administration would create new intergovernmental structures that would better reflect the geo-demo reality.
Muro’s an optimist. Dismissively referring to the 50 states as “historical accidents,” he believes that the administration is on the verge of recreating federal-urban relationships, and maybe even bypassing the states altogether.
In the original report, Brookings rather timidly and tentatively called for federal agencies to “understand the new geography” and “provide relevant information,” but not prescribe particular solutions.
The institute also issued a “governance challenge,” calling for megapolitan areas to attempt “deep-going experiments in organizing themselves.”
But here’s the problem. Present governmental systems are deeply embedded in constitutional law. We’re the United States, not the United Cities. Sixty-four counties make no sense at all — but try telling that to 64 sets of county commissioners, 64 sheriffs, thousands of employees and millions of rural/semi rural Coloradoans who don’t much like anything about the Front Range.
Let’s imagine that the administration can actually pull it off, and send aid and investment directly to our Front Range megalopolis. Imagine local officials divvying up the federal dough and getting to work!
Imagine a fuming, irrelevant Gov. Bill Ritter, ignored by Obama, upstaged by a bunch of mayors!
Imagine coherent regional government, and commuter rail along the Front Range!
That’d be great, but here’s reality.
“You’re not functionally as well connected to the rest of the Megas,” Muro said. “And you only have 15 direct flights from your airport.”
Muro praised Denver International Airport as a great regional asset.
“It’s an amazing airport, and Denver is a great city (which also benefits from) compression and density,” he said. “You need to think of DIA as an asset, not a competitor.”
We have, it appears, a lot of work to do — and, Muro’s optimism notwithstanding, little chance of success.
But don’t lose hope! As Shel Silverstein wrote decades ago in a sharp-edged satire about the famous “Yes, Virginia” letter:
“I’ve got news for you! There is no Santa Claus! And there is no Easter Bunny! And there is no yellow brick road to the Emerald City of Oz!
“Maybe someday you can go to Detroit…”
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.