by James A. Bacon
The Hampton Roads and Richmond regions should align themselves as a “mega-region” to gain critical mass in the competition for economic development, maintain Thomas R. Frantz and Nicole L. Pugar in a Times-Dispatch op-ed today.
“Cities that want to compete nationally and internationally are blurring boundaries, combining their assets and resources, and redefining themselves through alliances with other nearby cities to become more attractive, “writes Frantz, who is CEO of the Williams Mullen law firm, and Pugar, the firm’s government affairs director. The authors were writing under the auspices of Richmond’s Future, a regional think tank led by Eugene Trani, president emeritus of Virginia Commonwealth University.
If Richmond-Petersburg and Norfolk-Virginia Beach met the U.S. Census requirements for a mega-region, entailing 25% or more employment interchange (commuting) between the regions, it would vault from the 36th largest (Norfolk) and 44th largest (Richmond) Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the country to the 18th largest.
A combined region, the authors contend, would wield more political clout in the General Assembly, exploit the growth potential of the Port of Virginia, tap more retirees from the military, and access funding for critical infrastructure projects. If Frantz’s name sounds familiar to readers of Bacon’s Rebellion, it’s because I quoted him recently in his advocacy for higher-speed rail in Virginia.
Before I express my reservations about this idea, let me say first that I think it’s great that Frantz and Pugar have launched this trail balloon. It shows that they are thinking. They are not satisfied with the pieties and platitudes about economic development that reflect the conventional wisdom in Virginia. Moreover, the op-ed reflects a deeper level of analysis that Trani’s think tank has brought to the discussion about economic development in Richmond. It’s a good thing that people are asking these kinds of questions.
Working toward a Richmond-Hampton Roads mega-region is a conversation worth having. A region’s single-most important asset in a globally competitive knowledge economy is access to a skilled and educated workforce. Larger MSAs, by definition, have larger workforces, and it’s no accident that a disproportionate share of economic activity is gravitating to the nation’s (and the world’s) largest regions and mega-regions.
However, Norfolk and Richmond would have to create genuinely integrated labor markets, which is not easy to do when the two urban cores are roughly 100 miles distant. Making matters worse are the bodies of water that make it exceedingly expensive to link south Hampton Roads with the Virginia Peninsula, not to mention Richmond. The transportation projects that Frantz advocates — higher-speed rail, the U.S. 460 Connector (which is really designed to attract manufacturing and logistical investment, not tie labor markets together), a wider I-64 and a Third Crossing — would cost multiple billions of dollars and are clearly beyond the capacity of either the Commonwealth of Virginia or the regions to fund under current conditions. Part of the conversation would have to focus on where that money will come from.
Another concern is that creating a unified mega-region would accelerate the pace of scattered, disconnected, low-density development between the two regions — exurban sprawl. Knitting the two regions tightly enough together to function as a single labor market would be highly energy- and capital- intensive at a time when economic and demographic trends are pushing development not out from the urban core but in toward the center. Thus, the vision is at odds with the green dream of conserving energy, shrinking the environmental footprint and creating more fiscally sustainable human settlement patterns.
Once upon a time, the United States was prosperous enough for Virginians to think big like this. I recall a movement two decades ago for Richmond and Hampton Roads to start planning for a super-regional airport capable of serving the two growing regions in the 21st century. The idea was to acquire the land and start planning in anticipation of the time the capacity was needed. Never happened. The idea died on the vine. And that was back when times were flush. Today, the federal government is careening toward a fiscal apocalypse that will assuredly pare the funds available to support state and local initiatives like the ones that Frantz and Pugar mention. Moreover, when Uncle Sam actually starts cutting spending (as opposed to cutting forecasts of future spending), Virginia’s economy will be the first to feel the pinch.
The nation, and Virginia along with it, is entering an era of prolonged fiscal austerity — 10 or 20 years at least. I’m not sure it’s an appropriate time to start dreaming up big, bold, expensive projects that soak up massive public resources. It’s a time for husbanding resources and focusing on projects of limited scope with high probabilities of success and high rates of return. For the foreseeable future, we need to expend our creative energy on revitalizing dysfunctional institutions like land use, education and health care, not gambling on big returns from speculative scheme.