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City Slicking in the New New West

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Among the unsung factors that determined this year’s presidential election, the Democrats’ selection of Denver for their national convention deserves credit. The decision paid off when Colorado swung blue for President-elect Obama, and, viewed as a recognition of the rising economic and cultural profiles of Western cities, it could lead to future political dividends.

Earlier this year, the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan D.C. think tank, released a report identifying emerging urban and likely Democratic-leaning blocs of the West, classified as “Mountain Megas.” Five mega-politan areas–where a population of one million or more people sprawls across urban and suburban spaces–have developed in the Intermountain West, with the Front Range centered around Denver as a leading example (the density is comparable to Chicago and Boston).

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The other megas include metro Las Vegas, Albuquerque-Santa Fe, the Wasatch Front centered around Salt Lake City, and Phoenix-Tucson. In each case except New Mexico, the mountain megas consist of at least 80 percent of their state’s total populations. This is the “New New West,” and three of the five states with mountain megas swung to the Democrats (Arizona Senator John McCain’s candidacy probably prevented his home state from joining the bunch).

Mark Muro, one of the report’s authors, sees the 2008 election as an initial sign that the West is turning into the new American Heartland and the “kingmaker” for future presidents. In other words, the road to the White House now runs through the Rockies. The growing population, plus the rising political importance, is promising for the Front Range and other mountain megas, all in need of infrastructure development and maintenance and research investment.

“Especially with a Democrat-controlled Congress and executive, you’re going to see more capital investment and infrastructure investment. Energy is very much on top of the list,” says Kyle Saunders, a political science professor at Colorado State University.

Just how well Colorado and the West make out is partly up to the megas and their regional cooperation. Organizations, such as the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG), must unite across the West to craft a common agenda that the region wants to pursue in D.C.

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The shared traits and challenges have already spawned initiatives, says Jennifer Schaufele, DRCOG executive director. The council has participated with five other states in meetings on transportation management for urban and suburban travel of mega-politan areas.

The megas are all wrestling with accommodating growth, including more diverse populations, while also maintaining quality of life tied to environmental amenities and natural resources, Schaufele says, and that involves talks, not just between Denver and Las Vegas, but also from Fort Collins to Pueblo.

The megas are also interested in “improving global connectivity,” Schaufele adds, which Eastern cities have done more successfully than emerging Western ones.

Other issues for building cooperation include public-lands and water resources management and both immigration policy and energy policy. Each case requires federal direction but also state and local funds and personnel.

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The development of renewable power supplies should benefit states, like Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. But recently dropping gas prices, which is slowing enthusiasm for alternative fuels, is a prime example of how the new-energy economy will need federal assistance. Robert Lang, a lead author of the Brookings report, says the West’s megas could lobby for a gas tariff to stabilize foreign-oil prices while also diverting capital into renewable energy ventures.

If the West can get its act together and figure out how to help itself, that could help solidify a strong Democratic base out West, along the lines of the Republicans’ domination of the South for the last quarter of the 20th century.

“We’re seeing a real eagerness and focus about getting into the fray, a sort of flexing of muscles,” Muro adds, of the coalescing regional vision. “The region has been less than the sum of its parts, but that may be changing.”

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