Aaron Renn’s repost on US states mattering more than some people imagine made me think about the difference in attitudes toward state lines in different US regions. Aaron’s examples of state lines mattering come from the Midwest, specifically Indianapolis and Columbus. My usual examples of state lines not mattering come from the Northeast. And those two regions treat states very differently.
Imagine a thought experiment in which Congress allows states to redraw their own boundaries – to split, merge, or change borders on their own accord. Let’s ignore the Senate – perhaps it still uses the old boundaries. Let’s also assume that this is not a completely de novo redrawing, akin to the creation of the French departments, in which states are drawn to be of specific size or population.
In such a case, in most of the US, there would be small changes only. Indiana would lose the suburbs of Chicago, Cincinnati, and Louisville, but otherwise remain intact. Virginia would lose the DC suburbs and gain the North Carolina suburbs of Hampton Roads. Tennessee would gain the Memphis suburbs, and maybe possibly lose Chattanooga. Oregon and Washington would merge. California, Texas, and Florida could either survive more or less intact or split based on metro area spheres of influence. I do not know Florida well enough, but my understanding is that Texas and California have strong enough state identity that in a referendum, their major regions would vote against a split. Ohio might have cleaved if it had had only Cleveland and Cincinnati, but I believe the presence of Columbus would make it survive more or less intact. The only Midwestern state that would be completely dismembered is Missouri, which has no equivalent of Columbus between St. Louis and Kansas City.
The opposite is true of the Northeast. From talking to people from both Upstate and Downstate New York, I believe a referendum would result in both sides voting for a split. New Jersey exists as a coherent entity only in jokes about the state made by people from other states. Pennsylvania has at least three regions that do not identify with one another. But at the same time, a coherent Northeast region exists: there are strong migration ties, not only among the four main coastal metro areas but also to and from Pittsburgh and the Upstate metro areas, which have stronger migration ties to New York and Philadelphia than to Cleveland and Chicago. Along the coast, there is also suburb-sharing, which has led to the formation of just four combined statistical areas; there’s even a chain of suburb sharing connecting New York, Allentown (now in the New York CSA), and Philadelphia, and there may soon be direct sharing between New York and Philadelphia.
Unlike in the Midwest or Texas or California, the Northeast does not have the same university-enforced state boundaries, which are probably a major reason why Columbus specifically has migration ties with the entire state but not much with areas just outside the state. In much of the Northeast, a huge number of students go to private universities. In Massachusetts as far as I can tell there are more students at private universities than at public four-year colleges. New York has a very large public university system, but the SUNY/CUNY distinction reinforces the state’s internal divisions rather than erasing them the way Ohio State does.
In terms of a national rail plan, the Northeast practically is a single state (as is the Pacific Northwest, but that’s just two states), from Portland to Quantico. In California, Texas, and Florida, and even Ohio and South Carolina, there are potentially strong in-state intercity rail routes. New York and Pennsylvania have those as well, but both have even stronger routes that cross many states. The Midwest is full of routes that cross states, but usually those connect one or two states to Chicago; the main exception, Chicago-Detroit via Toledo, is indeed not pursued, in favor of the inferior I-94 route that mainly serves Michigan.
Regional rail is similar. It is possible to come up with a plan that’s at least theoretically coherent for regional rail in most parts of the US, to be run by a state agency (or in borderline cases a bi-state agency), or by a local agency with powers delegated by the state. In the Northeast, it’s completely impossible. It’s not even possible to cleanly cleave the region into separate states for the four primary coastal metro areas, because commuter rail services on the Northeast Corridor need to share track with intercity trains at least part of the way, and building infrastructure to avoid such track-sharing is needlessly expensive.
I do not know of a transport association that crosses so many boundaries of subnational entities in Europe. French services are run by the regions; they sometimes cross boundaries, but only in the Midwestern sense of a region bordering Ile-de-France running some of its regional trains to Paris. In Germany, Berlin and Brandenburg have the same transport association, and for all intents and purposes are a single state when it comes to rail network planning. Swiss services cross cantonal borders, but at least the Zurich regional rail network is again French or Midwestern, in that there’s a core of services funded by the ZVV, and services in bordering cantons that run through. In the Northeast, there are good reasons to have commuter services run through from Philadelphia to New York along the Northeast Corridor and maybe also the West Trenton Line; even metro area boundaries are not hard, let alone state boundaries.
Stepping back from the thought experiment, let’s think of how to organize transportation planning in the US. In the Midwest and the South, states are coherent entities. In the West, the areas where states really do not mean much are deep in the Interior West, where there’s no point in building additional ground transportation infrastructure in the first place. But in the Northeast, there may have to be a special exemption treating all of it, including Northern Virginia, as a single state for planning purposes. It can’t be run as tightly as a single state because of its size and its natural division into several metro areas, but some joint service between its various divisions is unavoidable.
More in general, the Ohio example showcases how coherent state identities can be manufactured by the presence of state institutions. On maps that center Cleveland and Cincinnati, such as maps of which baseball and football teams people support, Ohio looks completely dismembered. And yet, the presence of Columbus and Ohio State changes everything when it comes to economic ties such as migration: suddenly, the otherwise-artificial state border means something in terms of social services.
This is not something Northeastern states can really do, nor should they. Pennsylvania has Penn State at State College, but it’s in a small, faraway town, and people who can instead go to Penn or Carnegie Mellon will. New York can expand CUNY and SUNY, but there are too many campuses to provide the same social function of Ohio State. Of course states should expand public higher education, in terms of both opening new campuses where needed and subsidizing tuition, but there’s no room to create a new Columbus; such expansion would provide a necessary service to state residents, but not change economic geography the way it did in Ohio.