Building a Sustainable Future for the Texas Triangle Mega-Region

Mr. Yaro: I'm going to talk a little bit about the Texas Triangle Mega-Region. I'll go into that for a moment and then I'm going to take a minor digression to talk about today's headlines and how that might affect our discussion here.

The Texas Triangle is a mega-region, a term that we came up with about five years ago at the University of Pennsylvania. It's a 40-year-old idea originally developed by Jean Gottman, a French geographer, to describe the then emerging northeast megalopolis - the continuous band of urbanization between Maine and Virginia - which was a visionary thing when it was first discussed by Gottman back in the 1960s. Today it's very much a reality.

I teach at the University of Pennsylvania along with Laurie and Marilyn. I did a study five years ago, it was kind of an immodest study that I put together, looking at national growth trends and looking at the then brand new census forecast that suggested that the U.S. was going to see a 40 percent increase in population by 2050. We started to imagine what the country might look like in 2050. Among other things that we discovered when we did fast-forward with population growth and land use change, was the emergence of not just one mega-region, the term that we use for these networks of linked metropolitan areas, but ten of them. In fact, we've identified an eleventh in the front range cities that stretch from Laramie, Wyoming, to Denver to Colorado Springs and all the way to Albuquerque. But suffice it to say for the moment, the definition that we've been using is for these linked networks of metropolitan areas that share economic sectors, infrastructure, natural systems and in most cases, political and social and cultural traditions.

Of course, the Texas Triangle. I think Marilyn Taylor had the map earlier today that we developed of the national system identifying these areas and then the Texas Triangle. It encompasses San Antonio, Austin, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth and the areas in between.

Each one of these mega-regions is quite different. In the Northeast we really do have an almost continuous band of urban development. Suburban New York overlaps a suburban Philadelphia and so forth. I think it’s clearly emerged already in Dallas and Fort Worth. It's starting to emerge in the I-35 corridor between San Antonio and Austin. If you go to San Marcos you can see the great coming together on either side of I-35, of almost one indistinguishable mass of exurban development that connects these two places.

Clearly, the Texas Triangle shares an economy. There are economic sectors that tie together Houston and Dallas and so forth. A lot of this can be discerned in the patterns of travel: the very frequent air service between these places and automobile traffic between places like Dallas and Fort Worth and Austin and San Antonio. Also, in the forecasts that we've done and the Census Bureau has done, the 16 million people who live in the Texas Triangle will be sharing the place with several million additional residents by 2050. This is unless there are some strategies put in place. This is what we've included.

I know Fritz Steiner and his team at the University of Texas and a team at Texas A&M have also looked at the Texas Triangle and reached the same conclusions that unless we see very different patterns of development and very different approaches to preserving things like the Edwards Aquifer and other groundwater resources, this region will be impaired in the future. We have to change the way we do business.

Before we get to that conversation, I wanted to have a little brief commercial message for the national and the regional economy. I'm trying to find a slide that characterizes where we are today. That is the former galloping herd down on Wall Street which are not galloping any longer. We're having this conversation today during the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression. President-elect Obama said today in his radio address that he intends to proceed with the most ambitious stimulus package and recovery program. They're using the term recovery in the Obama transition team and not stimulus because what they intend to do is to create not just short-term employment, but a long-term transformation of the infrastructure systems of the United States and create the capacity to promote new economic activity for generations in the future.

Marilyn Taylor's punch list for us this morning was ways to create a more sustainable future; I'm going to mention them again. Take note of them because I think we ought to come back to them. The notion that we need to focus on first is infrastructure and using infrastructure to promote and enable a compact urban and suburban development of walkable communities, creating a public realm in each of those places that become magnets for people and jobs and economic activity and education. The bucket of cold water we got this morning from Mr. Murdock and the Census Bureau about changing demographics and aging represents a very real challenge of bringing a large group of immigrants and their kids into the mainstream of our society.

One of the things we need to do, what Marilyn suggested, is make sure that the public K through 12 education system and the higher education system do what they're supposed to do: bringing those folks into the mainstream of our economy and our society.

Also, transforming the way we use energy, moving away from carbon-based fuels. Those are the things that we need to do. President-elect Obama discussed that in his radio address today when he said that this painful crisis “is an opportunity to improve the lives of ordinary people by rebuilding roads and modernizing schools for our children and by investing in clean energy projects.”The numbers that have been coming out of Congress and out of the Obama transition range, but they say around $136 billion. I have to keep remembering to use the word B - billion dollars for this infrastructure investment strategy.

In the New York Times today there were suggestions by a group of economists that said what we really need to be thinking about is a stimulus and a recovery package of approximately $600 billion a year for the next couple of years; about $1.2 trillion. What we're talking about is the biggest public works program in American history and the opportunity to create the kind of transformation that the interstate highway system had. The last time we did this, it was part of a strategy developed in 1939 by the National Resources Planning Board, which was the planning arm of The New Deal, when they were planning public works projects. They proposed a national toll road and free road system, an unlimited access highway system that would cover the entire country.

We saw Mr. Murdock's maps of where the growth is occurring in the country. Most of the growth is occurring in places that benefited from these very large public works projects first envisioned by the National Resources Planning Board in the 1930s for The New Deal. The Board created the interstate system, created the big rivers projects, the big irrigation projects, the navigation projects and flood control projects and hydro projects that made the South and the West possible. Things like the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Colorado River Project, the Central Arizona Project, the Bonneville Power Administration, the Grand Coulee Dam and so forth.

That's what we need to get back to today. I wanted to say one other thing; I think this ought to be a topic of discussion over the next day or so and I will encourage you to focus on the decision that Congress is going to make on the elements of the stimulus package in the next three or four weeks, something like a $300 to $600 billion investment strategy by the time they are done.

The principal criterion is being able to get money out the door quickly for shovel-ready projects. The challenge before us is that the shovel-ready projects tend to be things like adding an inch of new asphalt on every highway system. I know my three departments of transportation, if left to their own devices, they would much prefer to add a couple lanes to your local interstate system than just about anything else. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see TxDOT investing a big slug of infrastructure money on two or four more lanes on the Katy Freeway.

I'd like to talk about the national trends behind this infrastructure strategy. A big one, as we heard this morning from Mr. Murdock, is the rapid population growth and the kind of demographic change that's under way; strikingly, 140 to 150 million additional Americans in the next 40 years. That is about what we added between the end of the Second World War and the turn of the century. Bear in mind that we are at capacity; we’ve used up all of the big infrastructure systems here in the Texas Triangle and across the country that our parents and grandparents created. We have to not only maintain what we have, but build a whole new energy efficient and less carbon productive system. Both a challenge and an opportunity, I think, as everybody has noted.

Globalization is another issue; the fact that a third of our economy is tied to international trade. It's up from less than a quarter only about 15 years ago. The airports and seaports and highways and railroads are just tied up in knots with containers moving in and out as part of this changed economy. Crumbling infrastructure is another. The I-35 corridor up in Minneapolis that collapsed last year got everybody's attention. We continue to have inequalities in the way regions and cities grow, with massive growth at the fringe. Finally, patterns of metropolitan development are an issue because they cause so much congestion, increasing travel times and commuting distances.

All of these issues are shaping mega-regions. Here they are, the 11 mega-regions; the ten that we identified five years ago and then you see the 11th, the gray area in the middle of the country that's the front range mega-region. Together these places encompass about three-quarters of the population of the country, close to 90 percent of the economy of the country and it's where nine out of ten of the new jobs and new residents are going to land.

There are some places that are outside of the mega-regions that will also grow, places like Omaha and Kansas City. But for the most part, this is where the growth is going to be. You can see in the Texas Triangle, this is where something like 75 or 80 percent of Texas will grow. I always get a big kick out of talking to Texans and Australians about the great traditions of cowboys. In Australia, it's the Outback. Texas and Australia are both big places with big myths about their countryside. Most Texans and most Australians live in big metropolitan areas. In fact, most Texans live in this one large mega-region.

You see here, shaded along the coastline, we've identified another mega-region that meets Houston with the Texas Triangle and that's the gulf coast mega-region that stretches from the Florida panhandle west all the way to the Mexican border. Five out of the 11 mega-regions extend across the U.S. border into Canada and into Mexico or in the case of Florida, into the Caribbean. This is going to be an interesting challenge, not just working across state borders and county borders, but creating institutions that, in fact, can work across international boundaries.

I'm always struck when I go to a place like Buffalo or Seattle or Vancouver and talk about this. You look at the maps of these metropolitan areas and the other side of the border looks like the pre-Columbian maps of the world. We know that there's life down there, but we're really not sure what those people are like.

Then you go to Holland, for example, and you find that the Dutch are working on strategic plans for economic development and mobility and environmental restoration across the Belgian border, across the German border. These are places that were at war with each other half-a-century ago and are now working across borders.

We had a presentation at the Brookings Institution a couple of months ago from the German Transportation Minister talking about their new national goods movement plan in the Federal Republic of Germany where the Germans states are working together and then working across international borders to seven other European countries. It is an integrated, thoughtful goods movement strategy for the whole country and all of central Europe. We got to the end of the discussion, where a bunch of very bright people were providing deep insights, coming out of this experience. I raised my hand and I said, “So does this mean that if we had a federal government we could create a national goods movement strategy, too?” And there was a kind of stunned silence. I guess it could happen.

Well, it turns out that my friend, Bob Fishman, a professor at the University of Michigan and I commissioned a paper about the tradition of American national planning and infrastructure planning. Bob describes it this way: it looks like an act of bureaucratic hubris best left to the French and then goes on and says, “au contraire.” It turns out that the first advocate for national scale infrastructure planning in this country was a much respected gentleman named George Washington. In his spare time between being commander-in-chief and president, he was an entrepreneur and tried to build the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. There are little vestiges of it in Washington and other places you can visit. He had an impossible time trying to get the State of Maryland and the State of Virginia to work together to build this thing under the Articles of Confederation. President, then private citizen, Washington insisted that the constitution include an interstate commerce clause that would provide a role for the federal government in promoting interstate compacts to create multi-state infrastructure systems.

Then his successor, twice-removed, I guess, Thomas Jefferson, after doing the Louisiana Purchase in 1808, asked Albert Gallatin, his Treasury Secretary, to develop a national plan that would lay out major infrastructure systems designed to tie the sections of the country; the Northeast and the South and the Midwest and the West, the Louisiana Purchase, together into national systems. They came up with this map on the left here; a network of national roads and canals and river and harbor improvements. Importantly, a mechanism to pay for it, which was a process in which the federal government would make grants of land to entrepreneurs in what we now call public/private partnerships to build these things. All the canal rights-of-way, of course, became rail rights-of-way when the railroads came along 20 or 30 years later.

This is what made it possible to build the nation's 19th century infrastructure. It's what led to the development of the continental railroad in the Lincoln administration. It's a mechanism, this idea of the federal government collaborating with private investors to build important national infrastructure systems is something that is still of importance to us today. A century later, another ambitious president, Theodore Roosevelt, decided that we needed a new national plan for the 20th century. He asked Gifford Pinchot, his Forest Service Director, to develop a new national plan, this time organized around conservation and resource-based economic development and aimed at underdeveloped and underperforming areas of the country like the South and the West. Initiatives in 1808 and 1908 do suggest a cadence; 2008 would be a nice time to be thinking about it. This is the national proposal for what became the interstate system; it came out of a national plan in the 1930s. Those of you that think infrastructure should just be paving contracts, this is the West Wing of the White House being built in 100 days by WPA; we'd like to remind the president as he's sitting in the oval office.

Basically, the idea is to focus first on transportation, which we're doing. We're developing a concept for a trans-American network of high-speed rail lines and improved freight links and airports and seaports that will be going to the Obama transition people shortly and then to Congress. We're following it up with similar systems for water and for energy.

The fact is that unless we get our act together, at least immediately in the next three or four weeks, Congress is going to be making decisions that hopefully, we're going to be rejoicing in, but that we may regret unless we are able to shape them into long-term investments that will shape sustainable communities in Texas Triangle mega-region and across the country. Thanks very much.


speaker yaro Speaker Robert D. Yaro, President, Regional Plan Association, New York City. Photo by member John Gullett.