The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why we should all get behind the MetroNow coalition

(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Our region rarely speaks with one voice when it comes to economic development. Its many political jurisdictions more often compete with each other than cooperate in their common interest. A current effort to address Metro’s funding challenges — the MetroNow Coalition — shows how our region can unify to solve big economic challenges. If it is successful, it may also eliminate the excuse that our region’s complex jurisdictional environment makes coordination impossible

Locations such as Denver, New York, the Raleigh-Durham area and Nashville all have added jobs and entered new industries through coordinated economic development policies and investments. They have grown faster than our region has. Why isn’t our region pursuing large coordinated economic development efforts like our competitors?

The answer most often given is that these regions do not have to deal with the jurisdictional complexities we face here; it’s easier to work within a single state than to coordinate across state lines.

I don’t agree with this argument. Political boundaries are not what  stand in our way; it is the unwillingness of business leaders to stop playing jurisdictions against one another. If you look closely at each successful regional economy around the nation, growth is usually fostered by the business community deciding to work together to improve the local economy and to make investments in the locations with the highest potential for success. Politicians don’t lead these efforts, because they are elected to represent voters who live in a single district. Business people look across geographic and political boundaries without having to worry about satisfying constituents. They are not looking to get elected. They are looking to grow their businesses.

MetroNow, as a collective activity led by business groups to support permanent funding for Metro, could be a model for successful business-led efforts for regional economic development. But will this opportunity be realized? Beth Johnson, founder of RP3 Agency and an expert in branding and public relations, looks at MetroNow and wonders whether business and community leaders will indeed take the time to lead. She is optimistic that they will. But they’ll really need to want to convert words into action, as it will take significant time away from their “day jobs” to drive economic change.

Yolanda Cole, owner of Hickok Cole Architects and chair of the Washington chapter of the Urban Land Institute, believes that the threat to our region from a failing Metro is so profound that addressing the problem will overcome local inertia. Business and community leaders will invest the time and energy, “because our long term economic well-being depends upon world-class transit.”

Clare Flannery, campaign director of MetroNow, says the direct advocacy that many MetroNow coalition members are undertaking in Richmond, Annapolis and D.C. shows a high level of personal commitment by business leaders. Coalition members are talking directly to the region’s elected officials and giving them specific legislative proposals and funding targets. Most importantly, they are speaking with a single voice.

If these efforts are successful, the potential benefits go beyond saving Metro. Bob Buchanan, chair of the 2030 Group, another group leading the coalition, believes that successfully addressing Metro’s funding in this way creates trust, understanding and success that will “lay the groundwork for action in the future.”

Will MetroNow be a template for further success? Or does the fact that Metro is a single, indivisible transportation network that can’t be broken up into jurisdictional parts and continue to operate — make it a unique situation?

I am not sure that we know the answer to that question today. However, one thing is abundantly clear. Whether we chose to act collectively in the future or not, if MetroNow succeeds, our community will no longer be able to point to our unique jurisdictional geography as an excuse for inaction. For that reason alone, MetroNow’s success would be a really big deal.