Western Challenges & Opportunities
The Intermountain West faces numerous challenges and opportunities in the coming decades:
- The US is expected to grow to 400 million people by 2051. Between 2000 and 2030, 88% of the nation’s growth will occur in the southern and western states.
- Within urban areas in the Inter-mountain West, population is expected to grow from nearly 16 million in 2010 to over 25 million by 2040, and most of that growth will come from immigration.
- Intermountain West population growth will drive economic growth and change trade patterns in the western United States.
Through the Western Regional Alliance (WRA) metropolitan leaders in the Western United States are collaborating now on long-term strategies for transportation infrastructure, environmental issues, and economic development:
- New infrastructure will be needed to support millions more people in western metros in a sustainable manner.
- Due to geographical and environmental conditions, innovative solutions will be necessary to preserve the region’s air quality and availability of water.
- With millions more people emigrating and immigrating to the West, new industries will need to emerge to enhance economic vitality and compete for international trade.
The Intermountain West is among the most urbanized areas in the country. Large cities, separated from each other by long distances, depend on interstate highway connections, air connections, and robust transit systems to power their economies. Over the last 25 years, metropolitan areas in the Intermountain West have acted as “self-help” regions, using local revenues derived from local taxes to invest heavily in their own transportation infrastructure. These regions have also employed their federal highway monies to broaden the focus of infrastructure investments to economic vitality:
- Denver has made enormous strides in its regional transportation system thanks to the passage of FasTracks, a 0.4% local sales tax 2004. When completed, the system will include 122 miles of new light and commuter rail and 18 miles of bus rapid transit connecting the Denver International Airport to Downtown Denver and neighboring cities
- Las Vegas has indexed its motor vehicle fuel tax to inflation and has invested substantially in transit planning for its 2.1 million residents and 41 million tourists
- Greater Phoenix’s commitment to regional cooperation and transportation has resulted in the construction of 181 center lane miles of freeway. Also, the efforts are producing a robust transit system with 26 miles of light rail in operation and another 38 miles planned. These efforts are supported by a regional half cent sales tax, initially approved by voters in 1985 and extended in 2004. When the sales tax was initially approved, it was among the first regional taxes in the country to support multimodal transportation improvements. In addition, in 2000, voters in the city of Phoenix passed a transit tax, which was extended for 35 years and includes new light rail lines, bus expansion and street improvements.
- Reno has invested heavily in its highway infrastructure in preparation for a major boom in the manufacturing sector led by the Tesla Gigafactory
- Salt Lake City has been investing in transit systems for decades, and was an early adopter of western style rail transit systems. Today, the Utah Transit Authority serves more than 80% of the population of the state with expanding light rail, commuter rail, and bus rapid transit.
- Tucson began changing the way they looked at transportation infrastructure planning in 1970 when the Pima Association of Governments (PAG) was etablished. A council of governments that includes local, state and tribal governments, PAG became a 501(c)4 nonprofit in 1972 and the region’s federally designated MPO in 1973. In 2005, PAG led the way in establishing the Regional Transportation Authority, funded by a half-cent excise tax, which was approved by voters in 2006. Today, PAG uses these funds and federal highway funds to manage investments in infrastructure and economic vitality in the region.
The Intermountain West derives its name from its environmental characteristics; its location between and including the Rocky Mountains to the eastern edge of the Cascade Range and Sierra Nevada. Within this zone are the Rocky Mountains, a vast basin-and-range province, plateaus, and nearly all of the U.S. deserts. Beginning in the mid-20th century, the West emerged as one of the fastest-growing and, necessarily, most environmentally sustainable regions in the country.
Today, Intermountain Western metros face a variety of environmental concerns, from controlling ozone and carbon pollution, to water availability, and public land conservation and use.
The economies of the Intermountain West share some very important characteristics. Traditionally, Intermountain West economies were based on agriculture, ranching, mining, and energy exploration. During World War II, western metropolitan economies became important nodes in the defense sector, and more recently, tourism, housing, and high tech industries have come to define western metropolitan economies. Opportunities exist in a multitude of industries for regional cooperation on economic ventures of shared interest between western metropolitan economies, including manufacturing and distribution, clean energy and energy transmission, water and environmental technology, and tourism.