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Should the regional transportation agency be elected?

A new twist in the power struggle over Bay Area planning

The power struggle between the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments got a lot more complicated over the past week.

Since MTC voted in late June to fund ABAG’s planning staff for only the first half of fiscal year 2015-16—an action followed by revelations that the regional transportation planning agency wants to take over ABAG’s land-use planning functions before their joint December move into fancy new digs in San Francisco—the two entities seemed destined to consolidate by the end of the year. Only the Sierra Club had registered its opposition to a merger.

But with ABAG’s Executive Board meeting on September 17 and MTC convening on September 23, several other influential parties, including SPUR, the League of Women Voters of the Bay Area, SF Planning Director John Rahaim, and ABAG Executive Director Ezra Rapport, have come out against hasty action, if not against consolidation, while the SF Labor Council has warned MTC not to take over ABAG’s planners, period.

Meanwhile, the state Legislature could be dramatically changing the entire regional planning picture. A bill by Assembly members Phil Ting and Marc Levine, ABX1-24, would turn MTC into an elected board, forcing the organization to accept a level of democracy that has never remotely existed in the past.

The bill would re-name MTC the Bay Area Transportation Commission and replace the body’s current 21 appointed members with commissioners elected by districts of about 750,000 residents. Each district would elect one commissioner, except a district with a toll bridge, which would elect two. A citizens’ redistricting commission would draw the district boundaries, and the campaigns for commissioners would be publicly financed. Elections would be held in 2016, with new commissioners taking office on January 1, 2017.

“It’s time to take a hard look at reforming this agency,” Ting told us. “We need to make it more accountable to the voters, the state, and the region.”

Last Thursday, ABAG Executive Director Ezra Rapport posted a lengthy response to MTC’s proposal to take over his agency’s planning staff. Appearing on the September 17 agenda of the ABAG Executive Board, the memo details the severe damage that ABAG would suffer if MTC fails to fund ABAG’s planners for the rest of FY 2015-16. The land-use planning agency would face insolvency along with a default in its pension program. People would have to be laid off. State and federal grants worth millions of dollars could be lost.

Rapport concludes that MTC’s proposal “should not be fast-tracked.” At the same time, he entertains the possibility of a merger, along with three other organizational scenarios. His four recommendations:

Other than the reference to FY 2015-16, no dates appear in Rapport’s memo.

SPUR, the pro-growth planning group, also thinks MTC should fund ABAG for the full FY 2015-16. But the white paper posted on its website last Friday and authored by its Regional Planning Director, Egon Terplan, also advocates merging the two agencies’ planning departments and eventually their entire operations after the completion of the 2017 edition of Plan Bay Area. As a provisional step toward consolidation, “the core decision-making body for the evaluation and approval of the 2017 Plan Bay Area update” should be the Joint MTC Planning Committee/ABAG Administrative Committee.

Meanwhile, a “study commission with a wide range of regional stakeholders” should be formed “to develop options for a single regional planning agency that combines the functions of ABAG and MTC,” with its work completed by 2017.

SPUR’s proposal that no major reorganization should occur until the completion of Plan Bay Area 2017 makes excellent sense. As anyone who soldiered through the planning process for PBA 2013 knows, the preparation of a Sustainable Communities Strategy—mandated by SB 375—is a tortuous and often trying experience. Before any administrative reconfiguration takes place, the preparation of the update of the SCS should be seen through to the end.

What doesn’t make much sense is SPUR’s rationale for consolidating the two agencies: greater efficiency. That’s MTC’s rationale as well.

But MTC has never specified the alleged inefficiencies of the current arrangement; the agency’s executive director, Steve Heminger, has not replied to my requests for specifics. Rapport told me that he has “seen no factual evidence” that supports the inefficiency argument.

Terplan, for his part, alludes to “challenges associated with different agencies overseeing a merged product where feedback, timelines and priorities differ” and to associated problems in producing Plan Bay Area 2013. He, too, offers no particulars.

He does offer particulars with respect to other work undertaken by MTC and ABAG, citing “some duplication of activities across the agencies.” His example is ABAG’s State of the Region Report and MTC’s Vital Signs website. “Both are great products,” Terplan writes.

But a combined and unified product with data on the economy, transportation, land use and other important variables would be more useful for the region. Having two separate efforts is wasteful.

I asked ABAG Chief Economist Cynthia Kroll if the State of the Region Report, which she oversees, duplicates MTC’s Vital Signs website. Kroll noted that the two projects have a working relationship. Indeed, Vital Signs introduces itself online as “an innovative monitoring initiative…[l]ed by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission” that “relies on extensive collaboration with the Association of Bay Area Governments, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission.”

Collaboration aside, Kroll said that compared with Vital Signs, the State of the Region Report “takes a much deeper dive” into the data and provides “more analysis.” The MTC website enables people “to look at a specific item.” By contrast, ABAG’s report “is focused on relationships among different aspects” of regional life—for example: “how does employment relate to population growth,” or how do demographic changes affect housing in the Bay Area? In a follow-up email, Kroll added that the State of the Region Report “provided a new baseline overview of the region as we began the regional forecast associated with Plan Bay Area [2017].”

Or, as ABAG Deputy Director Brad Paul put it, Vital Signs provides “ ‘snapshots’ ”; the State of the Region offers a narrative.”

MTC staffer David Vautin, who oversees the Vital Signs project, has not replied to my query about how the two projects relate and differ.

Terplan’s other example of inefficiency at the MetroCenter (ABAG/MTC current headquarters in Oakland) concerns the “many overlapping committees and advisory boards.”

He presents this list:

Joint ABAG/MTC bodies: Joint MTC Planning and ABAG Administrative Committee, Regional Advisory Working Group (RAWG), Regional Equity Working Group (REWG)

MTC bodies: Commission, Planning Committee, Partnership Technical Advisory Committee (PTAC), Policy Advisory Council (PAC)

ABAG bodies: Executive Board, Administrative Committee, Regional Planning Committee (RPC), Housing Methodology Committee for RHNA (as needed), and Bay Area Planning Directors Association (BAPDA)

Terplan suggests that “many of these committees could be combined and strengthened,” a move that would lead to greater efficiency, given the cost of sending staff to so many committees,” and greater accessibility “for outside stakeholders and advocates. There are simply too many committees to attend and track, and it is difficult to know when and where it is most effective to plug in.”

I myself have been bewildered by the alphabet soup of groups that convene at the MetroCenter. But after Paul went over the list with me, Terplan’s roster of redundancy seemed dubious.

Start with the MTC bodies: the Commission and the Planning Committee are peculiar to MTC (the latter is effectively the commission’s executive board). The Policy Advisory Council comprises “stakeholders” and deals mainly with transportation.

ABAG bodies: the Executive Board and the Administrative Committee are peculiar to ABAG, with the Executive Board corresponding to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission proper and the Administrative Committee serving as ABAG’s executive board. The Regional Planning Committee differs from MTC’s Policy Advisory Committee in that it comprises a large number of elected officials and focuses on land use and housing. The Housing Methodology Committee for RHNA meets only three or four times every eight years; in other words, it’s not really a standing committee. The Bay Area Planning Directors Association is not an ABAG committee, though it is staffed by the agency.

Terplan himself notes that ABAG’s Regional Planning Committee— “a forum…where regional leaders in the private and public sector, city and Congestion Management Agency staff, elected officials, ABAG/MTC board members and others come together as equals to discuss regional policy”—is singular. “MTC,” he writes, “offers no similar venue for regional discussion where board members and outsiders sit as equals.”

He makes this observation in the context of a broader acknowledgment of ABAG’s distinctively local orientation—“local” referring to city councils and county boards of supervisors, not the public at large. “ABAG,” he writes,” is a place for local governments to engage with each other and with regional land use issues.” He also flags the “set of unique services” that ABAG provides to local jurisdictions:

Terplan concludes that these “valuable programs…do not exist elsewhere in the region and should be preserved.”

Fine. But that’s the easy part of consolidation.

What’s missing from SPUR’s white paper is any recognition of the hard part - namely, the distinctive and even conflicting missions and outlooks of MTC and ABAG. The tensions between the two agencies involve more than administrative problems that could be addressed by streamlining operations and coming up with a neater flow chart. They reflect divergent attitudes toward democratic governance, and social and economic equity.

Rapport hints at those divergent attitudes in his white paper. “The SCS process,” he writes,

has highlighted some frictions within MTC and ABAG about joint regional planning activities. For example, MTC has raised concerns about inefficiencies in the process, while ABAG is concerned with retaining local input in housing and land use planning.

Translation: MTC disdains public participation. You won’t find that in any memo from MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger. But you can get a strong whiff of such disdain from Heminger’s testimony to the California Assembly Select Committee session on improving Bay Area transportation, an event that MTC sponsored at the MetroCenter on August 21.

Responding to 16th District (Lamorinda and the Tri-Valley) Assembly member Catharine Baker’s request that he name “the biggest reform changes that we should be considering in terms of revenue,” Heminger mentioned Caltrans’ highway repair program. Then turned to public participation.

…[T]his is a consistent refrain that you hear from transportation folks all the time—and to some extent it’s the Pogo comic strip: we have met the enemy, and he is us. I mean, we love public input, we love public hearings, we love having everybody have their say, but what we tend to do in the Bay Area especially is, everybody has their say eight different times, and we go over and over and again the same round. The vast majority of the work that we’re doing now is either public transit or highway work on the existing facilities, and I don’t know why we need to spend so much time evaluating the environmental impact of these activities—I just don’t. And so I’m afraid I’m going to vote for CEQA reform, which is something I know many of you have been working on, but that really is a major cost driver in California.

“CEQA reform” is code for the rollback of the California Environmental Quality Act, the state’s premier environmental law, via legislation coming out of Sacramento.

If the public transit at issue is, say, a second BART tube, environmental impact seems totally relevant—indeed imperative. And when it comes to land use, CEQA provides the legal basis for grass-roots opposition to inappropriate development. In fact, the spate of new laws weakening CEQA—starting with SB 375, the 2008 law that mandates the creation of regional Sustainable Community Strategies, and continuing with SB 226, SB 743, and AB 744—variously exempts transit-oriented, infill development from environmental review.

Not that ABAG is a model of civic participation. On the contrary: people who come before ABAG without the aegis of a non-profit organization that has standing at the MetroCenter can expect their voices to be ignored, no matter how well-researched or righteous their views. And ABAG has also embraced CEQA “reform,” albeit not as enthusiastically as MTC.

That said, ABAG is a more democratic institution than its partner agency, simply by virtue of its makeup. In the words of its executive director, “ABAG is a local government dues-paying membership organization” that was created by local governments in the Bay Area in 1961. Its General Assembly comprises a representative of every city and county in the region. It’s also true, however, that the General Assembly meets only once or twice a year, and, at least based on my observations, it’s hardly a hive of activism. In any case, no such body exists at MTC. The regional transportation agency was created in 1970 by the state legislature. Its 21-member policy board is dominated by the most populous counties and cities. The electeds who sit on both ABAG and MTC are appointed by their respective city councils and county boards of supervisors.

ABAG is the more democratic of the two agencies in another respect: it has a greater commitment to social justice. That became evident last summer, when, over ABAG staff’s objections, MTC staff sought to remove the anti-displacement policy that appears in Plan Bay Area 2013. Thanks to the vigorous protest mounted by the 6 Wins for Social Equity Network, which had successfully campaigned for the policy’s inclusion in the first SCS, MTC staff has now endorsed retention of the disputed language.

But given MTC’s vastly greater financial resources—it has an annual budget of $900 million, ABAG’s is $23 million—if consolidation occurs, would such a dispute even become public? It seems likely that the ABAG position would be internally overruled from the start.

And then there’s the unionization issue. In a September 15 letter to MTC, Tim Paulson, the executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council, expressed concern over the possible loss of up to 60 union jobs resulting from an MTC takeover of ABAG’s planning staff. Unlike ABAG workers, MTC staff have no union representation. “The planning department of ABAG,” Paulson wrote,

consists of approximately 20 unionized employees. This one department accounts for 15% of ABAG’s overall budget, and removing it could leave ABAG without the necessary funding to support the remaining departments in the agency, which may impact another 10 unionized employees in support positions.”

He also warned that 51 current retirees “could see their pensions and health benefits adversely affected.” He asked MTC to vote against the proposed takeover,

to take some time to consider all aspects and repercussions of this proposed action and work with SEIU 1021 as the representative for these workers on any proposed future changes to the agency.

Paulson attached part of letter from SEIU Local 1021’s law firm, Weinberg, Roger & Rosenfeld, that noted “legal problems that would arise from a transfer of ABAG’s planning and research department to MTC.”

Rapport attached to his white paper a memo from ABAG’s legal counsel, Kenneth Moy, which makes some of the same arguments as the Labor Council’s lawyers. “In my opinion,” Moy wrote, “transferring the Planning and Research staff from ABAG and MTC does not change SB 375’s requirement that ABAG be responsible for [the land use, housing, and economic] elements of the SCS.”

My hunch is that next week MTC will follow SPUR’s recommendation that “[t]he question of ABAG’s budget and funding needs should be separated from exploring the benefits of a merged department,” and that it will vote to fund ABAG for the rest of FY 2015-16.

I also suspect that both MTC and the ABAG Executive Board will “explor[e] the benefits of a merged department.”

What remains to be seen is how such an exploration will proceed. Rapport’s white paper includes a detailed consideration of the pros and cons of four different organizational scenarios, ranging from full consolidation to improving cross-agency collaboration under the current division of regional planning labor. He envisions a subcommittee that would “conduct a transparent six-month process evaluating the options to ensure appropriate and efficient collaboration between planning departments and ABAG and MTC.” It would include commissioners and Executive Board members appointed by the commission and Executive Board, respectively.

SPUR argues however that “[a]ny model for the future must not be based on the individuals in leadership positions today” [emphasis in the original]. That model would assume “a single regional planning agency for the Bay Area” and involve either a merged MTC/ABAG “or the creation of a wholly new agency that subsumes both…and has functions in addition to land use and transportation.” In any case, its staff “should come from the civic world, not current regional agency personnel.”

In a September 15 letter to Heminger and Rapport, San Francisco Planning Director John Rahaim writes that for nearly 60 years, “planners have discussed, studied, and dreamed about consolidation and unification of Bay Area regional agencies.” Like Rapport, Rahaim seeks “transparen[cy].” Like Terplan, he recommends “a merger process that involves a broad range of stakeholders.” Specifically, “planning professionals should be asked to advise on best practices so that our policymakers can achieve integrated goals.” Urging the extension of ABAG funding “through at least June of 2016,” Rahaim says that “[a] deliberate, collaborative process and the public accountability it demands will take time and should not be rushed.”

The president of the League of Women Voters in the Bay Area, Linda Craig, writing to ABAG President Julie Pierce on September 16, states that “LWVBA has been an advocate of a consolidated regional planning agency in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 50 years.” Nevertheless, the League “is concerned that the recent move by MTC to announce it will withhold 6 months of contracted funds to ABAG to force a discussion of a consolidated planning staff is the wrong way to move ahead.”

In a piquant aside, Craig adds: “(Of course we do not know what is really going on; only what we can observe from public meeting records.)” Hear, hear.

Her organization “favor[s] developing a plan for the consolidation of planning efforts that will be shared with the public and a process that will allow the public to understand the plan and share its comments with MTC and ABAG.”

In the meantime, the League suggests that “at the very least, MTC should honor the existing contract and provide ABAG full funding for its planning efforts, until a mutual solution is reached.”

Finally, since it seems to be open season on regional planning improvements, here are my top recommendations: