The Chicago Megacity: Is Regional Cooperation Possible?

A fresh look at the “Chicago Megacity” reveals people want the region to work together, but are policymakers willing to make cooperative efforts happen?

A grim joke tells of a scorpion who pleads with a frog to carry him across a river. The amphibian declines, pointing out that the scorpion is his natural predator. The scorpion, though, points out that to kill his waterborne taxi would be foolish because it would seal his own death.

The frog relents, but midstream the scorpion stings him. The dying frog – as baffled as he is apoplectic – demands to know why the scorpion has just killed them both. With his last breath, the scorpion shrugs and replies, “It’s my nature.”

This week, Marquette University Law School took a fresh look at the so-called Chicago Megacity – the urban mass that stretches from north of Milwaukee through the region’s namesake and down to the environs surrounding Gary, Ind. Marquette Law’s pollster, Charles Franklin, rolled out results of a survey plumbing the sentiments of residents in the megacity’s 21 counties across the three adjoining states.

Mapping the region’s emergence as a single, connected geographic and economic entity, and exploring Milwaukee’s prospects for integrating with that larger body, has been a running project at the law school since 2012.

In the poll released Tuesday of some 1,872 people, the most concise message boils down to this: We want politicians and policymakers across the region to cooperate for the region’s overall benefit – but not at our own, or our state’s, personal expense.

In the abstract, cooperating for the good of the region won approval of the people surveyed by margins of around 2 to 1. Joint promotion for tourism was met favorably. So was a broadly described suggestion to enable licensed professionals to pursue their trades in any of the three states without having to get relicensed. And majorities favored jointly funding “planning and coordinating” regional transportation.

Yet actually funding joint tourism promotion or business recruitment to the region got thumbs down in the survey. Meaningful expansion of mass transit options got little traction in the poll – regardless of whether respondents commuted to work in buses, trains, or automobiles. And spending money in the interests of the region as a whole? Forget it.

Mike Gousha and Charles Franklin discussing the Chicago "Megacity" at Marquette University Law School. Photo by Mike Gryniewicz (for Marquette Law School)
Mike Gousha and Charles Franklin discussing the Chicago “Megacity” at Marquette University Law School. Photo by Mike Gryniewicz (for Marquette Law School)

“Respondents are not willing to share efforts on attracting business and even more opposed to shared tourism,” Franklin concludes in the report. And – probably not surprisingly – if the survey respondents could easily move across the state border to lower their taxes, majorities said they would do so.

“These results show that there is public support for political leaders who might pursue policies with more diffuse benefits but that such support would likely drop were the benefits too tangible for competing states,” the report continues. “Cooperation then seems more likely to gain public support in areas where the shared benefits are high, such as transportation or licensing, but likely to meet public disapproval when direct and competing economic interests are at stake.”

In the panel discussions that followed, participating business leaders, policy wonks and mayors (including Milwaukee’s Tom Barrett) had no shortage of energy and enthusiasm for building on the poll’s good news.

Participants generally agreed on the necessity for the Chicago Megacity to become a more coherent and cohesive economic, social and geographic entity, as well as on the importance of working together for the sake of the people and communities within its embrace. They agreed, too, on priorities for moving toward that ideal: better transportation – particularly mass transit, commuter rail and high speed inter-city rail – and continuing to focus on fresh water that, in the form of the Great Lakes, continues to be the region’s singular shared asset.

But they acknowledged also continuing, pressing challenges: how to strengthen education at all levels, particularly in urban communities; the difficulty of moving the most chronically jobless people into the workforce, along with the necessity of a solution; and, of late, the especially grim surge of deadly violence in Chicago and Milwaukee over the last year.

Crime, one audience commenter told the mayors, is “the elephant in the room” that may serve as one of the biggest obstacles. Education, Barrett said later, is in its own way just as pressing.

Still another elephant, though, was one never mentioned directly as one: state government. Several times speakers touched on issues in which state policymakers – in Indianapolis, in Springfield, and in Madison – got in the way of broadly shared priorities for the megacity.

Racine Mayor John Dickert lamented funding cuts to effective anti-crime and jobless aid programs in Racine. Several speakers – Barrett, for one, but also MillerCoors’s chief human resources officer, Michelle Nettles, among others – pointed to the need for high-speed rail service linking Chicago and Milwaukee. Prospects for a high-speed rail system failed to move forward in Wisconsin when Gov. Scott Walker turned back federal funds that would have connected Milwaukee and Minneapolis with a high-speed rail line.

During the business-oriented panel, Carmel Ruffolo, Marquette’s associate vice president for research and innovation and a Wisconsin representative to the Alliance for Regional Development that encompasses the three Chicago Megacity states, quoted Indiana Gov. Mike Pence on the context of expanding regional cooperation: “I don’t wake up thinking about how am I going to help Illinois and Wisconsin,” Ruffolo recalled Pence saying.

“What are we trying to change here?” Ruffolo asked her fellow panelists, then answered her own question. “It’s the culture.”



Milwaukee Magazine Contributing Editor Erik Gunn has written for the magazine since 1995. He started covering the media in 2006, writing the award-winning column Pressroom and now its online successor, Pressroom Buzz. Check back regularly for the latest news and commentary of the workings of the news business in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.