For Release Sunday, February 22, 2009
President Obama’s economic recovery package will succeed to the extent it juices the true engines of the American economy–U.S. metropolitan areas, home to two-thirds of our population, generators of three-quarters of our GDP.
That much is clear.
But now that Obama has traveled to Denver to sign the bill, doubts are in full flow about whether the needed juicing will actually occur.
Overwhelmingly, the smart set predicts the bill’s haphazard collection of separate funding items–for roads and transit, schools, safety net programs, and energy efficiency–will be frittered away in an uncoordinated spending spree. The prevailing “wisdom” is that state and local implementation of the $787 billion package will degenerate into a scrimmage of competing agendas among governors and legislatures, state capitals and city halls, and even between neighboring municipalities.
But: Isn’t there at least a chance the massive, disconnected funding flows of the stimulus will trigger coordinated responses in U.S. metropolitan areas?
It’s easy to be skeptical. Clearly, few of those who drafted the stimulus agreed with the case we made in our our Brookings “MetroPolicy” report–that coordinated regional decisionmaking is the straightest route to regional and national job growth. Stuck in an older mindset, Congress for the most part rejected calls that it give direct funding to metro-area actors. Instead it funneled large tranches of money to the states, whose record on knitting together infrastructure, housing, and economic development programs to maximize the productivity and sustainability of metro regions is mixed at best.
And yet, here’s my thought: For all of the business-as-usual on display in Washington, there have been significant signs in recent weeks that metropolitan areas themselves (and to an extent states) are ready and able to impose some order on the mess of federal policy and new dollar flows. I’ve been impressed at the energy and focus with which state and local leaders are preparing to try to aggregate and align the recovery package’s myriad separate funding streams–for highways and mass transit, school repairs, housing programs, revitalization of distressed areas, for energy retrofits, often with a strong metropolitan focus.
Coordination and quarterbacking are coming together all over.
At the state-level, as many as 15 governors, according to Stateline.org, have already created new positions or working groups to manage how their states spend stimulus funds. Alabama, Ohio, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, and Vermont have all appointed infrastructure or stimulus coordinators or “czars” to organize and oversee stimulus-funded projects across state government. The governors of Florida, Kansas, Missouri, and Wisconsin have all set up new advisory groups or task forces to get different state leaders all on the same page when it comes handling their recovery packages.
Even more important, significant work has been underway for weeks at the metropolitan level to try to craft a unified strategy for integrating the new federal funding in support of maximum metropolitan–and therefore national–benefit.
The Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) in the Kansas City area, the Puget Sound Regional Council, and the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada are among those that have all assembled regional lists of transportation and other public works projects to help metro leaders make the most of the moment and advocate with a unified strategy for their regions’ needs in their state capitols. Similarly, Forward Metro St. Louis, a regional advocacy coalition, is serving to mount a bi-state metropolitan voice in Missouri and Illinois to ensure that federal stimulus funds maximize regional economic gains.
And metropolitan actors are asserting themselves with even more focus in a range of other metropolitan areas.
In Chicagoland, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning is preparing aggressively to shape implementation of the stimulus package and has posted draft criteria to help prioritize project selection across the region. So too in the Bay Area, where the Metropolitan Transportation Commission has developed regional implementation priorities to ensure the region makes the best use of the by prioritizing both “system preservation” and “game-changing” investments that can help transform the economy. Metro Denver’s Regional Council of Governments is also encouraging agreement across area stakeholders to have stimulus funds support transportation projects that are part of regional systems.
OK, you’ve heard the litany–that stimulus flows will be too disconnected, frittered away. But what if the prevailing wisdom is wrong? What if 20 years of emerging metropolitan consciousness and capacity in Sacramento and Denver and Kansas City and Chicago and Charlotte mean that the package evokes surprising successes on the part of savvy region-minded leaders? What if they’re able to pull this sprawling shower of separate funding flows together into into cohesive recovery and infrastructure packages that truly lift the metropolitan hubs?
If that happens, then we will know, once and for all, that the truest home of fresh, reformist thinking lies not in Washington, and not in state capitals, but in America’s metropolitan areas. And our nationwide economy will be a big winner.
Mark Muro is a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution and the policy director there. His e-mail address is MMURO@brookings.edu.
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