'New Heartland' needs federal aid

Western states facing growth spurts and big-city troubles

July 21, 2008|By Ashley Powers | Ashley Powers,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LAS VEGAS - As outlying sagebrush here was quickly devoured by starter homes and chain stores, Las Vegas began grappling with the kinds of problems that long have vexed California - crowded classrooms, packed freeways, lack of water, immigrants who struggle to learn English and rising poverty.

Similar issues recently have bedeviled the Phoenix, Denver, Salt Lake City and Albuquerque, N.M., metropolitan areas. By 2040, Las Vegas and its fast-growing brethren will be home to nearly 12.7 million more people.

While a booming population is turning the inter-mountain West into an economic force and political battleground, a Brookings Institution report released yesterday suggests that, without help from the federal government, its major cities are headed for trouble.

"These places are going to be overwhelmed if they're left to go it alone," said Mark Muro, policy director for Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program.

The five-state region, which the study dubbed the "New American Heartland," was the least-developed part of the country in 1950. There isn't even an interstate linking Las Vegas and Phoenix because they were mere blips when the nation's highway system was mapped out.

Between 2000 and 2007, however, Nevada, Arizona and Utah boasted the nation's top three population growth rates; the Las Vegas area alone jumped 31 percent, to more than 2 million people.

In addition, the report said, the arid region is growing thirstier - and climate change could further scorch it. Its middle class is dwindling more quickly than in other regions, and its cities must cope with about 1 million undocumented immigrants, half of them in Arizona.

Solutions, according to the nonpartisan think tank, lie in the Western states working more closely with Washington on transportation, water, energy and immigration - much as federal policies helped shape Atlanta, Miami and Dallas during their growth spurts. But there are formidable roadblocks, including the nation's current economic slump.

Proposals that require money "may be difficult to pass in today's budget environment," said Alan Viard, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "Large federal deficits will make many members of Congress wary of creating or expanding such programs."

And Washington, Muro said, historically has taken a hands-off approach with the West.

"I don't know if I'd call it neglect," said Utah Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr., a Republican. But federal officials "have been impervious to the growth here over the last generation."

Huntsman, chairman of the Western Governors Association, said officials across the region need to band together on common problems and press for federal officials to shift their focus.

"To Washington," Muro said, "this is still a region of forest fires and Endangered Species Act issues and, maybe, energy."

Greater Las Vegas, which includes Clark County, neighboring Nye County and Mohave County, Ariz., has boomed more quickly than any other area examined in the Brookings study. Nearly one-fifth of Las Vegas-area residents are foreign-born, a higher percentage than in the other metropolitan areas, and about 43 percent of its U.S. transplants moved from California.

In the past, said Tracy Bower of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, local funding seemed to be the best approach when, for example, the area needed a Beltway. "It's been a way to deliver things when they're needed so quickly," Bower said.

But the souring economy has made it more difficult for Nevada to pay its own way. Gambling revenue has plummeted, and the state unemployment rate is higher than the national average. Funding education and creating "knowledge cluster" jobs - in fields such as financial services, information technology and health care - are particularly pressing problems, the report said.

Of the five areas studied, Las Vegas has the largest percentage of people struggling with English. It also has the smallest fraction of residents with a high school diploma, and with graduate or professional degrees - 19.2 percent, compared with 27.2 percent nationwide. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has the weakest research capacity of its peers in the inter-mountain West, the report said, and state budget cuts are expected to hit hard.

"We've been scrambling to keep up with the growth," said Neal Smatresk, the university's provost. "We don't want a lack of federal funding and state support to take the wind out of our sails."

Ashley Powers writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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