The Bay Area is getting bigger, much bigger

Phoebe Villasol and her sister Jasmine Villasol wave to people along the parade route during the Modesto Fourth of July Celebration. According to a new concept, Modesto is now part of the Bay Area Megaregion.
Phoebe Villasol and her sister Jasmine Villasol wave to people along the parade route during the Modesto Fourth of July Celebration. According to a new concept, Modesto is now part of the Bay Area Megaregion.

Welcome to the Bay Area, Merced!

Welcome as well to Modesto, Sacramento and Yuba City. And Santa Cruz, Monterey and Salinas. And while you’re almost another state, don’t worry, Tahoe City.

This expanded notion of the Bay Area isn’t a joke. It reflects the biggest thinking about California’s future. If you’re a smaller Northern California region struggling to compete with the Bay Area, why not join it instead?


The Bay Area would benefit, too. It is one of four connected Northern California regions – along with greater Sacramento, the Northern San Joaquin Valley and the Central Coast triumvirate of Monterey, Santa Cruz, and San Benito counties – that face severe challenges in housing, land use, jobs, transportation, education, and the environment.

Since such problems cross regional boundaries, shouldn’t the regions address them together as one giant region?

The Northern California Megaregion – a concept developed by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute –includes 12 million people and 21 counties, extending from the wine country to the Salinas Valley lettuce fields and from the Pacific Ocean to the Nevada state line.

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The Megaregion is integrating as people search more widely for jobs, housing and places to expand their businesses. The trouble is that this growth is imbalanced. The Megaregion is home to wealthy San Francisco and poor cities such as Stockton, Salinas and Vallejo. And as high housing prices push people out of the Bay Area, these refugees flee deep into the Megaregion, only to find they are too far from their jobs and schools.

The result: brutal traffic that produces greenhouse gases and longer commutes.

Figuring out how to rebalance the Megaregion and solve such problems is a high-stakes challenge, and not just for Northern Californians. The entire state relies heavily on the economic growth and tax revenues generated by the Bay Area.

Megaregional planning could offer a vision for how the state might spread out its prosperity, creating a better distributed version of the California dream.

This does not mean allowing the Bay Area to colonize its neighbors. Rather, it’s mega-rethinking so that planning and development enables the Megaregion’s pieces – Bay Area technology, Sacramento government, San Joaquin Valley logistics and Monterey area farming – to magnify each other. One example: If new state research and development tax credits were to target inland companies, an infusion of technology and investment could allow San Joaquin to make its logistics industry more efficient and less polluting as it moves vegetables from Salinas to expanded ports in Stockton, West Sacramento or Oakland.

Megaregional planning could create more high-tech jobs and companies outside the Bay Area, by better connecting universities, laboratories and research institutions with local entrepreneurs. Companies now leaving the Bay Area for Austin, Texas, might be redirected to Sacramento or Santa Cruz. Such efforts would be strengthened if Bay Area entities jointly lobbied the Legislature to develop a more educated workforce in the San Joaquin and Salinas valleys.

Of course, making such a shift would require well-integrated transportation connections, including more Amtrak service between San Jose and Placer County, new links to Salinas and planned expansions of the Altamont Corridor Express train to Merced and Sacramento. (Political note: The controversial gas tax increase provides $900 million for these ACE expansions.)

It’s easy to mock such mega-visions. For years real estate interests have done silly things, such as touting a San Joaquin County housing development as “Far East Bay.” (Local joke: Is that nearer Singapore or Hong Kong?)

But if Megaregion planning succeeds, it could inspire imitators. Could Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas (and maybe Tijuana and Mexicali) further integrate into their own Megaregional triangle? Could the Northern California Megaregion expand further south to the state’s fifth-largest city?

Welcome to the Bay Area, Fresno.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at