In 2013, the federal government confirmed what every kid from Waynesboro, PA, had understood 50 years earlier — that Franklin County was inextricably tied to the Washington–Baltimore region. Forsaking the Phillies and Pirates, Little Leaguers from south-central Pennsylvania traveled instead to watch Frank Robinson in the Orioles’ outfield. In the fall, local families jeered the Eagles and Steelers, and cheered as Johnny Unitas led the Baltimore Colts to victories. Good-paying jobs beckoned and TV signals emanated from over the Blue Ridge mountains and inside the dual beltways.

Franklin County is one of several new metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) in the Federal Reserve’s Third District and one of many small MSAs that have been drawn into the much larger statistical constellations of Philadelphia, New York, and Washington–Baltimore (Figure 1).1 How are these delineations drawn? And what do they reveal about economic vitality and policy challenges in the tristate region? This report describes how population levels and commuting patterns define the Third District’s economic regions using U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) standards. Specifically, how did Franklin County, PA, become tied to the Washington–Baltimore region? Why did a largely rural, four-county region on the Delmarva Peninsula become an MSA? Are Trenton’s ties to New York stronger than its ties to Philadelphia?

The Franklin County example highlights how successful the federal criteria are at capturing the economic and cultural relationships among geographic areas. For researchers, the MSA classification provides a valuable common basis on which to group and study economic regions as distinct labor markets. However, some economic development patterns will always pose a challenge to a necessarily rigid classification system. Indeed, some of the expansion of these statistical areas has resulted from localized commuting patterns that don’t appear to create the economic benefits one would anticipate from a resilient MSA. This report analyzes the census data to distinguish between commuting generated by adjacent counties and commuting generated by competition from larger, more distant labor markets.

This article appeared in the Fourth Quarter 2015 edition of Business Review. Download and read the full issue.

[1]On the basis of its 2010 population estimate, Franklin County was delineated by the OMB as the Chambersburg–Waynesboro, PA, MSA — a promotion from its prior status as a micropolitan statistical area. In turn, commuting patterns tied Franklin County to the Hagerstown, MD, MSA, and thus with the combined statistical area (CSA) designated as the Washington–Baltimore–Arlington, DC– MD–VA–WV–PA CSA.