The Key to a Stronger Economy? Better Regional Governance

By Jennifer Warburg
February 18, 2013

The Bay Area economy has rebounded from the recession. Yet major regional challenges threaten our continued prosperity. These topics were a major focus at the 2013 State of Silicon Valley, the annual event where Silicon Valley and Bay Area leaders gather to discuss the state of our region’s economy. This year the conference organizers, Joint Venture Silicon Valley and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, invited SPUR to write a special analysis about regional governance for presentation at the conference and inclusion in the event’s flagship publication, the Silicon Valley Index.

In the resulting piece, Strengthening the Bay Area’s Regional Governance, SPUR Regional Planning Director Egon Terplan made the case that some of the biggest threats to the Bay Area’s long-term economic competitiveness are challenges best addressed through better regional governance.

Regional decisions are responsible for much of what makes the Bay Area such a great place to live and work, including our large areas of open space and the transit infrastructure that links our cities and suburbs. Regional agencies like BART, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which SPUR played a major role in establishing, were set up to manage these assets in perpetuity. Yet our regional agencies have changed little since the 1970s, and they are increasingly inadequate to address the issues shaping the Bay Area’s future.

Currently, our regional agencies are single-purpose entities — they lack the power to integrate land use planning, transportation, natural resource protection and climate change adaptation. Cities working to address these issues on their own often inadvertently exacerbate them in another part of the region, thwarting overall regional competitiveness.

SPUR’s report for the Silicon Valley Index focuses on five major regional issues in need of better planning and coordination:

1. Job sprawl. As the regional grows, jobs are being added in a decentralized pattern with few connections to reliable transit. This growth pattern is resulting in unsustainable commutes and increased levels of greenhouse gas emissions. In our thinking about The Future of Work, SPUR has made the case that locating jobs closer to transit — and closer to one another — will be key to the Bay Area’s long-term economic growth.

2. The need for more overall housing production. Local jurisdictions have a greater incentive to add jobs than housing. This dynamic has resulted in a jobs-housing imbalance as well as high housing prices in much of the region. SPUR has encouraged regional agencies to increase regional housing growth totals in their planning scenarios.

3. Competition between cities for tax revenues. The winner-take-all approach to local tax revenues results in fiscal and service disparity among cities. It also undermines regional cooperation and can lead to inefficient land use outcomes. SPUR has explored the promise of regional tax sharing. We've also looked at shifting to a system of more green taxes and fees as possible solutions to this regional problem.

4. The need for better coordination of regional transit services. The Bay Area has a huge transit system, but it is managed by 27 separate and poorly coordinated agencies. This fragmentation results in challenges for users and operators alike. SPUR has many recommendations for saving regional transit — including contemplating a possible merging of BART and Caltrain — and strategies for better funding and governing regional rail.

5. The need to prepare for sea level rise. Climate change is a problem that threatens every jurisdiction in the Bay Area. It demands a coordinated response, yet no regional agency exists with the mandate or the tools to direct an adaptation strategy. SPUR has done some of the leading thinking around how the Bay Area’s response to sea level rise could be better.

Where to begin? At the conference, we highlighted a few of these items for immediate action, including regional transit coordination and pilot tests for tax sharing.

Over the long term, the special analysis argues, we have three broad options for reforming regional governance:

1. Strengthen existing agencies by giving them more power.

2. Establish one or more new regional entities with new powers to respond to specific problems.

3. Move toward a multipurpose regional agency like those in Portland, Oregon, and in Minnesota's Twin Cities.

To achieve any of these options will require convincing Bay Area residents and politicians to recognize our linked fates.

The truth is that in today’s economy, the region is the scale where we compete globally.  We face increasing competition from places that act and work regionally, such as Singapore, Shanghai and Vancouver. Failing to strengthen our own ability to act in concert as a region means risking the Bay Area’s economic standing globally.

Our needs are more interconnected now than ever. Our governance should reflect that.

Download the full index and special analysis >>

Read the special analysis online >>

Read ABC News coverage >>

Read coverage from The Mercury News >>

Read coverage from Palo Alto Online >>