"What's in an infrastructure-based stimulus package?" Bankers, governors, community organizers, advocates of cities are asking the same question, with an eye on the prize of substantive investments in the future of metropolitan America.
While occupying 12% of the country's land area, metrics about the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas reveal that these regions:

  • House and employ 65% of the American labor force;
  • Generate 75% of U.S. economic activity; and
  • Are the site of the filing of 78% of new patents.

It's evident that economic necessity, governing philosophy and old-fashioned political pressure are leading both Congress and the incoming Obama administration to place a new level of focus on the potential of cities and their surrounding regions. That's a good thing.
Making the most of urban regions will require that public policy is aligned with market reality: Cities are our engines, and engines need maintenance and care. Two nonpartisan think tanks, the American Assembly and the Brookings Institution, have for the last year served as town criers on this issue. They have broadcast the message that cities' physical appeal, transportation infrastructure, and ability to develop, retain and attract people with skills are objectives that have only become more critical in recent time.
Digress with me, across the ocean and 350 years of history. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch wrested economic dominance from the merchants of Genoa, Italy, largely by changing the game of shipping. By one account, the Dutch used wind-powered sawmills and cranes to manufacture relatively small, fast ships known as flyboats. The ships' crew of ten was one-third that required to sail the crafts of English and Italian competitors, with comparable cargo capacity. As a consequence, Dutch freight rates in the mid-1600s were 30-50% less than the competition, predictably leading to boom times still evident in the architecture and museums of the Low Countries. In addition to wind, this boom was powered by private-sector innovations supported by public infrastructure.
Calling for the metro area to be the focus of infrastructure investment in Minnesota is not to overlook Greater Minnesota, where clearly needs exist. Communities across the state are increasingly tied to the stock of the metro region as Minnesota's economic center, and the coming stimulus debate is an opportunity to embrace this reality. Focusing stimulus investments in the metro region will reinforce our reputation as a forward-thinking community, open for business, and prepared to invest in our places.
In fact, the stimulus debate is an opportunity to address two questions: What is in an infrastructure-based stimulus package, and where.
Read more about the stimulus debate in a recent story in the Economist magazine, and contrasting pieces by columnists Tom Friedman and David Brooks.