Strategic Regional Decision-Making

Making decisions focused on regional welfare not parochial interests

Urbanist Article May 1, 2001


Some of MTC’s successes at collaborative transportation planning include the regional agreements on project screening and scoring criteria; the ability to obligate most or all available funds each year by cooperatively shifting funds as needed from projects that were not ready to those that were; agreements on coordinated modeling methods and arterial operations; and an innovative Transportation for Livable Communities (TLC) program that provides funding to local agencies and nonprofits to plan and implement local improvements to make transportation in communities more workable. In general, the process seemed to increase the political capital among the partners as they jointly lobbied in Sacramento and Washington.

There were also, however, some clearcut failures. The Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee and the Systems Operation and Management Committee both turned out to be ill-conceived and were appropriately abandoned. The former was never able to agree on its mission or purpose and became contentious and unproductive. The latter could never as a group understand what system management was nor develop much interest in the idea, though its members realized more efficient systems could have benefited everyone.

More commonly, outcomes were mixed. Transit coordination and the universal transit ticket still remain works-in-progress after a number of years of discussion. The 1996 Partnership Regional Transportation Plan Task Force produced innovative ideas about regionalism, but these were never implemented. Some shared understanding was built through the Partnership as members and stakeholders learned more about transportation policy and funding, but there was not much mutual trust of analyses or data, most of which were prepared by staff or consultants. Partners had not been part of the process of deciding what analysis should be done or how, nor did they often discuss the meaning of the results.

Although MTC has devoted massive effort to outreach and public involvement activities, the efforts have not satisfied many stakeholders, who believe their voices are not being heard. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) held up the formal recertification of MTC’s planning and participation process pending improvements because of the chorus of criticisms that met their reviewers when they visited in 1999.

On regionalism, too, the record is mixed, with a few successes in which regional welfare trumped parochialism, but more often the reverse was true. The trend seems to favor a growing parochialism among partners. Finally, it is fair to say that MTC’s efforts have created new forums for discussion, with new participants becoming knowledgeable about crucial issues. In many ways, these efforts have produced a more legitimate and transparent process than in the past. At the same time, there is still much that is not transparent in the decision-making process, which contributes to the external critiques MTC is facing.


The overall lack of collaboration or focus on regionalism, despite all the efforts, can be explained by a number of factors. First and foremost is the dominance of a pork barrel culture in transportation policymaking at all levels of government. The norm is that the task of transportation planning is to provide projects to the key players. This standard has been reinforced in California and at MTC during the last eight years through formal and informal agreements and new state legislation which provides money by formula to jurisdictions or agencies, rather than on the basis of merit, need, or contribution to a regional strategy.

Moreover, the continued earmarking of funding for special projects at the federal and state levels reinforces this culture and typically bypasses regional decision-making. These practices encourage parochialism and a focus for MTC and the Partners on getting the maximum funding rather than on solving a shared transportation problem.

While MTC did establish a partnership, the way it was managed did not meet the necessary criteria for successful collaborative policy dialogue. Such dialogue requires either a small informal group whose members know and trust each other already, or a facilitated process where all interests are put on the table and explored.

Most of the genuinely regional thinking that we observed was in the meetings and committees that were more collaborative in their discussion, as opposed to the more formal meeting formats. Some of the smaller groups came up with innovative ideas and regional missions. The Partnership board retreats, which were often facilitated, typically focused on big regional issues, whereas most of the Partnership’s committees and meetings were not facilitated, and they did not involve much collaborative dialogue. MTC staff typically dominated the conversation and set boundaries on the discussion. Partners seldom had the opportunity to develop understandings of one another’s interests or agreement on a problem, much less on potential solutions. Most importantly, many stakeholders were missing from the Partnership table: interest groups representing environmental, housing, business, labor, transit and inner city interests, and the cities themselves. Although some interest groups were involved with MTC on advisory committees, these were quite separate from the real decision-making processes, and these participants seldom had the chance for face-toface dialogue with the Partners.


Another important piece of the explanation of the overall failure of collaboration and regionalism to flourish is that collaborative policymaking was only one of four approaches to planning that were simultaneously at work in and around MTC. Each model involved a different way of making choices and a different idea about what was a good regional plan.

Technical Bureaucratic Model

In the technical bureaucratic model, planners acted primarily as analysts providing technical documentation and as bureaucrats making sure rules were followed. A good plan from this perspective was one that did not conflict with agency objectives and that conformed to the existing rules and practices.

Political Influence Model

In the political influence model, also very much in use at MTC and among partners, an agency amasses power and loyalty through the allocation of benefits. In this model, a good plan is one that satisfies all the powerful interest groups. The technical and political approaches tend to form an uneasy partnership in public agencies like MTC, with the former providing legitimacy and the latter providing direction.

Social Movement Planning Model

A social movement planning model in the Bay Area has also formed, representing the stakeholders who were left out of the decision-making process, including social equity groups, environmentalists and transit riders. These groups mobilized around a vision of a compact, transit-friendly region.

Collaborative Model

The collaborative model involves dialogue among all stakeholders, searching for agreement on the facts, vision and criteria. In this model, a good plan is one that satisfies most stakeholders, addresses the problems they agree upon, and provides action strategies.

Although collaborative planning did occur at times in the MTC processes, it was consistently confronted by the other planning models. Collaborative planning was the least practiced of the four models, not only because of long institutionalized practices and beliefs that favored the other approaches, but also because laws and regulations offered major obstacles to genuine collaboration. Formula and geographic allocation of funds, along with earmarking of funds for specific projects at state and federal levels, precluded the need or incentive for collaboration while encouraging the dominance of a political influence approach. Complex requirements of multiple funding pots and needs for extensive documentation made it difficult for many stakeholders, or even partners, to participate meaningfully in dialogue or to understand what was at stake. These requirements also tended to empower the technical planners at the expense of others. The exclusion of stakeholders who were not transportation providers or the relegation of these stakeholders to peripheral advisory roles led to distrust and the creation of social movements, which came into conflict with the more traditional policymaking approaches. The participants in the social movement were the primary spokespeople for a regional approach to transportation decision-making and for things such as compact land use and improvement of transit. But they were not in face-to-face discussions, for the most part, with the transportation providers, so this regional perspective was not expressed in many Partnership meetings.


It is our observation that collaborative policymaking is the most likely of the planning models to produce regional vision and innovation. Its use is likely to produce outcomes that will achieve a higher degree of satisfaction among more of the public than other approaches when the problem is controversial, complex, and uncertain. This is especially the case when collaborative groups involve diverse stakeholders and when participants all have a strong incentive to reach agreements to move forward. Collaborative policymaking is a way to build networks and social, political and intellectual capital that can last well beyond any individual policy discussion. At the present time, the transportation decision system presents many obstacles to such dialogue and little incentive to do it.

Transportation policymaking cannot produce the outcomes that the public wants unless it is driven by these groups in the first place. It cannot be about problem solving unless the problems are defined. It cannot serve the public unless it is designed to do so. The following are steps we recommend to move toward this end.

1. Performance Measures

Require, as a condition of state funding, that each region develop a set of performance measures. The measures must be developed collaboratively with not only the local and regional agencies, but also the stakeholders representing the full range of interests, including, for example, transit riders, environmental interests, social equity, business, development, and housing groups. These measures should focus on the performance of the region rather than a given agency, and address not only transportation, but also issues that are closely linked to transportation including the economy, social equity, housing availability, and air quality.

2. Focus on Improvement

All levels of government need to start moving away from project-based transportation planning. The focus on projects drives out a focus on regional improvement or even improved user satisfaction with the system. The projects themselves become the goal of the decision-making process, regardless of their impact or cost effectiveness. The public cares about commute times, congestion and transit performance, not about projects per se in their city or elsewhere.

3. Eliminate Allocation Formulae

Reduce (and ultimately eliminate) the use of formula-based allocation of funding. These formula allocations are barriers to regional collaboration and regional problem-solving. They encourage a focus on parochial issues, and ensure that investments are not deployed cost effectively in terms of a region’s needs. They leave as orphans the projects that could help and provide mutual benefits to many parts of a region, but which do not provide sufficient benefit to an individual jurisdiction for them to use their own funds. Formula-based funding makes genuine strategic decision-making for a region impossible.spur logo

About the Authors: 

Judith Innes is professor of city and regional planning and director of the Institute of Urban and Regional Development (IURD), and Judith Gruber is associate professor of political science, both at the University of California, Berkeley.

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