Is a Washington-Baltimore-Richmond Mega-Region in Our Future?

The Boston-Washington corridor

In 2008 economic geographer Richard Florida argued in his book, “Who’s Your City?”, that the economic units that matter in understanding economic growth and development aren’t nation states, or states, or even metropolitan statistical areas. They are mega-regions — conglomerations of metropolitan areas that are increasingly bound to one another through business interactions. By Florida’s reckoning, the mega-region biggest in the United States and the second largest in the world is the Boston-Washington corridor, which extends as far south as Richmond and Hampton Roads.

I long thought of the idea of a mega-region as a meaningless abstraction — an academic concoction rather than a reflection of economic reality. Metropolitan areas, which describe definable labor markets, are the primary units of economic development. But two news stories today have forced me to consider the possibility that MSAs are not immutable if the will exists to transcend them.

First, the Greater Washington Partnership, created last year, has issued a vision statement for “the Capital Region” encompassing the Baltimore, Washington, and Richmond metropolitan statistical regions. Admittedly, that’s a far cry from a megalopolis stretching all the way to New York and Boston, but it’s a bigger than anything that exists now in Virginia or Maryland. The economy of the Capital Region, proclaims the organization’s website, is the third-largest in the United States and seventh largest in the world.

States the website: “By acting together, and focusing on super-regional solutions, we can overcome jurisdictional impediments, achieve solutions at a scale that is equal to the problems we face, and deliver new sources and engines of growth to achieve economic well-being and prosperity.”

In the Richmond Times-Dispatch today, Michael Martz quotes Dominion CEO Thomas Farrell, one of 21 corporate CEOs on the partnership’s board, as saying,  “The Greater Washington Partnership can make an impact on such pressing issues as transportation and talent, if those issues are addressed regionally.”

The overarching goal of the CEOs is to attract talent and promote innovation. A law of knowledge-economy economics, known as the agglomeration effect, is that larger regions exert greater gravitational pull on talent and corporate investment than smaller regions. The implication: Washington, Baltimore and Richmond are all stronger if they function as a single big region rather than three smaller regions. The incredible power of the agglomeration effect drives the growth of mega-regions, and it is the primary justification for building ties between neighboring regions.

Now, it’s one thing to proclaim a common identity, and another to achieve it. One can easily envision Washington and Baltimore as a single MSA because the entire swath of land between the two core cities has been filled in and developed. As a result, the labor markets of the two regions overlap to a significant degree. The same cannot be said of Washington and Richmond. But ties between Richmond and Washington, though tenuous, are emerging.

That brings me to the second news item. The Stephen Fuller Institute has just published a study, “Migration in the Washington Region: Trends between 2000 and 2015 and Characteristics of Recent Migrants.” The Washington region has a problem. While its population continues to grow as a result of foreign immigration and a surplus of births over deaths, the region has been leaking native-born citizens.

Between 2000 and 2015, Washington has experienced a net domestic migration to the Baltimore area of 77,000, and to the Hagerstown-Martinsburg area of 35,000. The number three and four recipients of Washington out-migration were Winchester (16,000) and Richmond (14,000). Charlottesville (4,000) was 15th largest recipient of domestic out-migrants. While downstate Virginia’s ties to the Washington region aren’t as strong as Maryland’s, they are still substantial. (Interestingly, Hampton Roads shipped a net 14,000 population to Washington over the same period, a pattern no doubt influenced by military ties between the two regions.)

When Washingtonians leave the metro area, by and large, they aren’t moving to New York, Boston or Philadelphia. Some are moving to retirement areas in Florida or the Eastern Shore, and a few to Charlotte and Raleigh. But the overwhelming majority are settling nearby — in the Baltimore, Hagerstown, Winchester and Richmond regions.

In other words, while the business CEOs speak grandiosely about pulling the three regions together, they aren’t trying to make something out of nothing. Below the radar screen, thousands of households making decisions of where to live and work implicitly recognize a commonality not reflected in government statistics.

If the political class buys in to the idea of a Baltimore-Washington-Richmond mega-region, the single-most important thing it can do is to knit the regions together with better transportation infrastructure. Saying this goes against my grain because I am suspicious of infrastructure mega-projects of all kinds, which invariably turn out to be boondoggles. But adopting the view of economic strategist rather than fiscal scold, I would say that top priorities would be: fixing the Washington heavy rail system, creating a higher-speed rail system from Richmond to Washington, and completing the extension of the Interstate 95 tolled express lanes to south of Fredericksburg. If we want to make a mega-region a reality, then we must invest in transportation infrastructure that enables people to move easily between the component regions.

One more thing. If Virginians want to become part of an economically competitive mega-region, they need to cast aside traditional resentments between Northern Virginia and the Rest of Virginia, NoVa and RoVa. Legislators must transcend their parochialism and prioritize projects of regional value, even if it means deferring local needs, in the expectation of everyone gaining something greater in return.

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21 responses to “Is a Washington-Baltimore-Richmond Mega-Region in Our Future?

  1. Great information as usual.
    Could you consider a posting where you flesh out some more details of the parochialism which is hindering regional development?

    • I don’t have any special data to illustrate parochialism — just the inevitable human tendency for elected officials to focus on transportation projects in their own back yard that directly and visibly benefit their constituents.

    • The parochialism inherent in Northern Virginia’s seven to eleven political subdivisions (depending on how you count) has historically been deeply adversarial and hyper competitive, each toward the other, instead of cooperative.

      The animus between Northern Virginia and Maryland’s Capital Region, going back to the 17 century, is alive and well today. Only George Washington was big enough to bridge that animus in creating the Nation’s Capital, a deal that fell apart between Va. and the Federal City within decades during the 19th Century. Today’s differences are as fierce and as baked into historic and modern circumstances as ever.

      The Animus between Northern Virginia and the rest of Virginia also grows. Maryland has its own well know divisions which fester and grow.

      As Jim points out: the ambition stated in the “Merger” website:

      “By acting together, and focusing on super-regional solutions, we can … achieve solutions at a scale that is equal to the problems we face, and deliver new sources and engines of growth to achieve economic well-being and prosperity.”

      That statement standing alone might be possible with exceptional leaders. Where are they? No where to be found since George Washington, best I can tell.

      And that quote wrongfully assumes its deletion in All Caps:

      “By acting together, and focusing on super-regional solutions, WE CAN OVERCOME JURISDICTIONAL IMPEDIMENTS, achieve solutions at a scale that is equal to the problems we face, and deliver new sources and engines of growth to achieve economic well-being and prosperity.”

      How can one do that absent the liquidation of our Federal City, State, and local forms of Government? Who are the politically elected official who are going to relinquish their power to non elected special interests? How is that going to happen, absent the collapse or overthrow, or subversion of representative government even when, as is increasingly apparent, these local, state, and federal bodies are increasingly incapable of self rule, much less good regional government.

      • Here is another great caution. Special commercial interests in real estate and law and later business migrants have ruled Fairfax County since WW11.

        For decades they swaggered around the region claiming their expertise and how their members were movers and shakers who could shake up the system and “get things done.” They even had paid help doing road shows.

        Look at the mess they have made of the County and region. How can we expect them to perform any better once they control an entire region?

  2. what I see is the continuing growth upward, higher & higher with more & more taxpayers taxes being used to fund leases to bigger & bigger developers that happily take your tax money
    — what else I see is the growth of transportation problems requiring even more taxpayers taxes to only help with the ever growing traffic problems. that leave the wealthiest traveling in their own lanes while the rest enjoy bumper to bumper traffic
    —this say’s nothing about the sanitary problems we already suffer from— pumping millions of gallons of raw sewage into our rivers every year.
    —the problems of water runoff?— going where, creating what kind of problems further down river?
    — I see single family homes pushed out of the area— or only for the very rich or politicians using taxpayers to live near their jobs.
    —some of you like this idea– but not me

    • That’s the dystopian vision — assuming we continue to grow with the same inefficient pattern of development that we have in the post-World War II era. But continued growth doesn’t have to look like that. I don’t write about it as much these days, but I spent a lot of time writing about a market-based approach to Smart Growth that would avoid a lot of those problems.

  3. As far as adding Richmond to the already existing Washington – Baltimore area … thanks but no thanks. Philadelphia is closer to Baltimore than Washington is to Richmond (by about 3 miles). Wilmington, southern New Jersey and Philadelphia add a whole lot more to the theoretical “super region” than Richmond. Y’all So’ners down thah in Rivah City been claimin’ to be be part of the deep south for yeahs. Y’all tain’t been interested in us NoVer Yankees and we tain’t interested in y’all.

    Seriously, this blog (by its design and focus) draws people from NoVa who think of themselves as Virginians. Most people who live up here think of themselves as Washingtonians. When I travel abroad and people ask me where I live in the USA I say “Washington, DC” not “Virginia” or “Northern Virginia”. For whatever reason some people on this blog who live in Henrico or Chesterfield think of themselves as Richmonders but can’t fathom why those of us who live in Northern Virginia think of ourselves as Washingtonians.

    Most people who live up here don’t spend any time thinking about Richmond. Those of us who do think about Richmond see a place where the people spend an inordinate amount of time pissing and moaning about Northern Virginia while trying to relive the Civil War with giant Confederate flags flying near the highway and a weird fascination with statues of dead soldiers from the losing side who weren’t from Richmond. They may throw snowballs at Santa Clause in Philadelphia but at least they’re living in the 21st century.

  4. geeze – what happened to live, work and play within walking distance?

    So this is a total change from the idea that you don’t want mega commuting roads… right?

    Surely we don’t mean people are going to live in Fredericksburg and work in Hampton do we?

    So what exactly is a “mega region” if not an UBER MSA?

    and what does this mean: ” completing the extension of the Interstate 95 tolled express lanes to south of Fredericksburg.”

    many folks consider tolls to be penalties to commuting .

    The only way a MEGA-REGION “works” is with high speed rail… not just a “demonstration” but a real robust network like you’d see in Europe and Asia!

    that kind of goes against the grain of most Conservatives who see passenger rail as a tax&spend liberal concoction…

    In Fredericksburg – we have more than a few folks who think I-95 should not only be toll free but have as many lanes as necessary to move traffic and if a second I-95 corridor is needed – build it.

    They have no use for rail… Ask the folks in Ashland (Mr. Brats town) who want no part of high speed rail…

    I don’t know about Richmond or Richmond east to Hampton – but from NoVA to Fredericksburg and then to Ashland – they want MORE .. I-95 and preferably not tolled.

    • I agree with you. South of Fredericksburg in Virginia there isn’t a modern urban mentality. In fact, there isn’t a modern urban mentality in the state overall. Which is why there are no real cities in Virginia with the possible exception of Arlington / Alexandria (which is a combination of a city and a county in the bizarre-o world of Virginia political organization). The biggest “city” in Virginia is a county that declared itself to be a city one bright and sunny morning. People in “core NoVa”, especially Alexandria and Arlington understand how a modern city has to work. People in those areas understand that modern cities require a lot of government provided services and they understand that means a high tax rate. In return, they achieve a critical mass that allows for new business initiation to happen at a relatively brisk rate.

      These “super regions” are no more than a collection of cites that are close enough to one another that the space between the cities starts to urbanize. Smaller cities grow up between the large cities – for example, Columbia, MD. Of course, this only happens if the political environment of the state is conducive to urbanization. Virginia has one of the least conducive political environments to urbanization in the US.

      Cities are always independent of counties. This creates many planning problems and makes the process of annexation hyper-emotional.

      No annexation allowed. Virginia’s puny cities (Richmond is 60 sq mi) can’t grow as the suburban areas urbanize.

      Strict adherence to Dillon’s Rule. The General Assembly, which is a mish mash of rural, suburban and urban representatives, holds all the power in Virginia. The various factions rarely agree on anything which keeps the rural areas poor, the urban areas puny and the suburban areas a chaotic sprawl.

      If the Washington – Baltimore region grows into a super region it won’t be by heading south. For that to happen it would have to overcome the anti-urban attitudes and practices of Virginia south of Fredericksburg as well as the incompetence of The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond.

  5. My understanding is that DJ is a world traveler and when he says Virginia has no “real” cities – it has impact.

    But then I get confused when comparing Va’s unique? independent city concept to other places where the cities are (presumably) .. not “independent”?

    Take Houston –

    ” Harris County is included in the Houston–The Woodlands–Sugar Land Metropolitan Statistical Area, ”

    then the plot thickens:

    ” Houston–The Woodlands–Sugar Land is a nine-county metropolitan area defined by the Office of Management and Budget. It is located along the Gulf Coast region in the U.S. state of Texas. The metropolitan area is colloquially referred to as “Greater Houston” and is situated in Southeast Texas.”

    then …..

    ” Components of the metropolitan area

    As defined by the Office of Management and Budget, the metropolitan area of Houston–The Woodlands–Sugar Land encompasses nine counties in Texas. They are listed below with population figures as of the 2010 U.S. Census.

    Harris County – 4,092,459
    Fort Bend County – 585,375
    Montgomery County – 455,746
    Brazoria County – 313,166
    Galveston County – 291,309
    Liberty County – 75,643
    Waller County – 43,205
    Chambers County – 35,096
    Austin County – 28,417

    Now .. this sounds like a worse mess than Virginia if each of these counties has their own “home” rule … and Texas is not a Dillion Rule state…


    ” The government of Texas operates under the Constitution of Texas and consists of a unitary democratic state government operating under a presidential system that uses the Dillon Rule, as well as governments at the county and municipal levels.”

    geeze oh man… Houston not only 9 different countries but they all operate under the Dillon Rule!

    HELP ME DJ !!!

    Finally – I imagine DJ has been to Houston – and I have … and anyone can looking at the Houston MSA road network on a map…

    Here, take a look for yourself…

    Now is this how Richard Florida thinks the Washington-Richmond-Hampton mega region should be “linked” – Texas style?

    There certainly is not a hint of high speed rail in Texas, right?

    • I am not sure why you have an issue with Houston. The city itself is 600 sq mi. Richmond is 60 sq mi. The area you outline is huge. Harris County alone is almost 1,800 sq mi. As a point of comparison Fairfax County is 400 sq mi. The city of Houston’s population grew almost 10% between 2010 and 2016. For a place you seem to think is so terrible there are sure a lot of people relocating there. As for rail transit, yeah – not so much. But they’re Texans, not mealy mouthed squirm worms from Richmond. They have no problem building roads. Their state legislature doesn’t dictate to the localities. If Houston needs roads Houston builds roads. There’s no “T’aint gonna pay fer no NoVer roads” bullshit in Texas. Other than being built in a swamp Houston is a great successful American city – something Virginia doesn’t possess.

      • Richmonders as mealy mouthed squirm worms?

        Don, you surpass yourself.

      • Fairfax and the NoVa MSA seem neat and tidy compared to the 9 separate jurisdictions that comprise the Houston MSA…

        According to Wiki – Houston IS a DIllon rule state, right?

        and Texas is building TOLL ROADS out the wazoo… right ?

        I don’t have a problem per se with Houston other than the fact that the traffic is terrible and they have no zoning laws… and 80% of the homes in the floodway were not insured….

        So is Houston the proper MEGA Region model that Florida sees as the path forward for Virginia?

        • By the way – we could pick some other large MSAs that are morphing into mega-regions…

          but the thing that strikes me most is the abrupt reversal that Jim is making here from an Ed Risse type vision of a functional settlement pattern to these huge mega regions – with mega infrastructure both road AND rail in most places that big – besides Houston.

          This is a momentous blog post ESPECIALLY if Jim B is going to get on board with a Washington to Richmond high speed rail – and/or possible a dual I-95 corridor… either way – a totally different mentality from the Risse era in BR!!!

  6. and here’s a map of the counties that make up Greater Houston:

  7. I think the answer to the headline is yes, that is what the future holds in the coming decades. I base my guess on my own situation. I’m a native Pittsburgher from Generation X who left PA because of a lack of job opportunities (real or perceived, having grown up in a blue collar household) in the 1990s. My high school sweetheart and I found ourselves in suburban MD after college because that’s where the job were, and we encountered many people of our generation who had done the same thing. This was in the late 1990s just before the real estate price explosion. We lived there for eight years, making decent money, but hating the transient “unsmalltown” feel of suburban MD/DC. We never knew our neighbors even though we lived in a very dense townhouse development. When we had our first kid, we decided we did not want to raise a family in that environment and began looking to leave. My wife doesn’t love hard winters, so we looked a little further south — Richmond, Raleigh, C-ville, Durham, Charlotte. (I like mountains, so Hampton Roads wasn’t really considered.) A job opportunity came up in Richmond, I spent a Saturday driving around the entire region for the first time, got a good vibe about the place — that it had that “smalltown” charm yet had the conveniences and culture of a city — and we decided to move. Ended up in a stable neighborhood in Midlothian and have been very happy since. Neither of us expect to stay in Richmond after the kids go to college, but we’ll see. Anyway, one of the other reasons I liked Richmond was because I had a feeling it had potential to be a great city one day. It has the river, the neighborhoods, the nice people, the colleges, the museums and parks, convenient access to I-95, beaches and mountains. All a little bit like a diamond in the rough, but I felt buying a home here would be a good investment. Since moving here I have encountered a lot of folks like us. People who left DC/NOVA in search of a place to raise a family, but still in the Mid-Atlantic — still close to our real “home” (we get back to Pittsburgh each year to see family and hang out). All of that said, I do think Richmond is on the cusp of being a hot city for Gen Xers and Millennials, but first (and not trying to start a new thread here) it needs to shed some of its baggage — rough leadership, lack of regional cooperation, and a difficult balance in its legacy as the “Capital of the Confederacy.” I see glimmers of hope in some of the younger leaders, in some of the projects happening, and in forums like this talking about these issues. Bottom line, I tend to trust my gut a lot, and my gut tells me that Richmond’s emergence as one of America’s hot cities is right around the bend.

  8. Dear Jim,

    Super regions promise only more of the same, super ugly & super slow. And they are being financed by the indebtedness of the Federal government of some $20 trillion dollars of “on the book” debt. Is this really sustainable, much less desirable? Some “progress.” I hope you’re reading this, “Til” Hazel.



    • There is no reason that super regions, tied together with high-speed rail and express lanes, have to replicate the same failed land use patterns of the past. There is nothing inherent in a mega-region that says you can’t build walkable urbanism (higher density, integrated land uses, walkable streets, mass transit when economically justified) instead of the same old schlock. To the contrary, America’s biggest mega-region (New York) is also its most walkable. The big challenge for mega-regions is keeping real estate affordable.

      • keeping real estate affordable is the main issue?

        Not sure if that is a market… how you do that…

        but this is all new ground that is being plowed here because as you alluded to auto-dependent infrastructure was not supposed to be a good thing.

        And High Speed rail – inter-regional was and still is not something Conservatives favor because it is subsidized and is not sustainable on farebox alone…

        I’m sure you are still chewing this over .. so will just await your further “re-think” as it comes to you~

        Virginia seems to have come to this conclusion because when the transportation taxes were changed – DRPT got a permanent funding slice and now has an actual budget for it’s plans and is going forward with them… except it’s not really “high speed” as much as it is higher capacity, more reliability, etc… we’re still a long, long way from Europe/Asia high speed.

        I wonder if Ed Risse has changed any of his thinking and whether or not his thinking is aligned with Richard Floridas.

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