Just three months ago, a major think tank portrayed Nevada and four other states as transforming the southern Intermountain West into the “New American Heartland.”
The Brookings Institution also warned that this region, fueled by a massive influx of residents to such “megapolitans” as the greater Las Vegas area, would be unable to best manage its growth without federal help.
But since that report was released in late July, the national economy has gone into a tailspin, raising the question of whether the federal government can afford to help Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.
Does that mean the Silver State will fail to reach its potential?
Certainly not, says Mark Muro, co-author of the Brookings report, “Mountain Megas: America’s Newest Metropolitan Places and a Federal Partnership to Help Them Prosper.”
“Washington may be the only major source of investment dollars for a while now,” says Muro, a Brookings fellow and policy director of the nonprofit’s Metropolitan Policy Program.
But he concedes, “There is going to be a scrimmage to secure support for the projects. It’s highly competitive.”
Not all support is monetary, he adds. The federal policy Brookings proposes includes relief from regulations and other rules that would allow more local say in how federal transportation funds are spent.
The report, which calls for “sustainable, productive and inclusive growth,” is based on a variety of data as recent as 2007.
Robert Parker, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, calls the report “overly optimistic,” partly because it fails to reflect current economic woes.
“This is a pie in the sky, almost, when you are dealing with the reality of today.”
The report elaborates on the role government would play in supporting the region’s assets — infrastructure, innovation, human capital and quality places — but doesn’t quantify the thorny issue of funding. Both presidential candidates, however, have acknowledged the need to invest in the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, such as roads and railways.
These megapolitans are redefining the shape of American cities with their sometimes far-flung urban cores. Greater Las Vegas includes not only Clark County but Nye and Arizona’s Mohave County, encompassing 39,370 square miles.
The others megapolitans are extensions of Phoenix, Denver, Salt Lake City and Albuquerque, N.M.
Fueled for decades by rapid growth, these super cities hold 80 percent of their states’ populations, the report says. By 2040, they are expected to collectively swell by nearly 12.7 million residents, roughly doubling their population from 2005.
But in a sign of the times, the growth rate in Clark County has slackened from its breakneck pace.
The state’s budget shortfall exceeds $1 billion. The local economy remains mired in the foreclosure crisis and a climbing unemployment rate, which just hit a 23-year high.
Muro says slower growth will give the area a chance to “catch its breath.” But the Mountain Megas boom will continue, he says, despite economic turmoil.
“Population may slow for a while, but over the long term, the general picture of growth and the need to prepare for it remains.”
The Brookings report says the megapolitans have made “impressive progress toward the super-sized challenges that stand between them and true prosperity.” But a separate Brookings profile of the greater Las Vegas area — the fastest-growing of the five — shows that in some ways, it fares worse than the others.
It struggles to expand its transportation network to catch up with past growth and keep pace with new growth. It has the weakest capacity for university-based research.
It has the highest proportion of residents with poor English proficiency and without high school diplomas. Its urban design makes people auto-dependent. And its share of the Colorado River water meets just a tiny fraction of its potential needs.
Still, the profile says the area is growing with “surprising efficiency,” partly because it has so little available land. Federal and tribal lands account for more than 91 percent of the area.
Parker, the UNLV professor, says a better description would be “involuntary density.”
“We have urban sprawl, but density at the same time,” he says.
While Brookings notes that Las Vegas has higher per capita income and labor productivity measures than most other megas, its poverty rate grew substantially faster.
“If people can’t sustain themselves, this community cannot sustain itself,” he says.
Besides developing stronger ties with the federal government, the report calls for states to overcome common challenges through collaboration and create more air and road connections.
It cites the lack of a direct interstate highway from Phoenix to Las Vegas as a critical missing link.
But Parker says he sees a disconnect within the local urban area.
“I certainly don’t see a sense of interconnectedness of community here, especially when you have places like Henderson and North Las Vegas, two of the fastest-growing cities in the country, and so different,” he says.
“Or go on the other side of town, from west to east, and look at the uneven development.”
Jacob Snow, general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, and Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, say they have been working for years with their counterparts in nearby states.
The report notes that in forging its own identity, the Intermountain West is distancing itself from California, which has had an “outsized impact” on the West’s development.
At the same time, the West’s historic resentment toward the federal government could erupt if efforts to help are seen as interference. Muro says one form a federal partnership could take is a congressional caucus spanning several states, similar to the Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition.
Neither Sens. Harry Reid or John Ensign returned repeated calls seeking comment on the possibility of forging a relationship with the mega cities and their states.
The two senators are scheduled to join Muro, Snow, Mulroy and other local leaders in an invitation-only breakfast forum Tuesday morning at UNLV. The event will be hosted by Brookings and the university.
The report notes that each American urban era has a “shock city,” defined as a place that captures the period’s emerging metropolitan trends and points to a new future.
It used to be Los Angeles. The next may be Phoenix or Las Vegas.
“The very fact that Las Vegas even exists on the scale it does is something of a shock,” the report says.
Contact Margaret Ann Miille at mmiille @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0401.