ABAG and MTC: Closer to Coordination?

Assessing recent attempts to better link ABAG and MTC

Urbanist Article September 1, 2003

As seems to happen every decade, discussions between the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) are taking place on the long-simmering question of whether they should be merged into one body, like similar organizations in the Los Angeles and San Diego regions, or continue as separate entities.

This time, State Senator Tom Torlakson of Contra Costa County revived the subject. Along with several other Bay Area legislators, he is troubled by worsening gridlock and ruinous housing costs. (See "ABAG-MTC Merger Bill," July 2002, p. 1). Last year his Senate Bill 1243 proposed fusing the MTC and ABAG, but it was opposed by ABAG and died in committee. Similarly, MTC played a leading role in defeating regionalist legislation proposed by the Bay Vision 2020 group ten years ago (See "Bay Area Regionalism" p. 9). This year,recognizing the Legislature's focus on California's budget crisis, Torlakson agreed to suspend his efforts to legislate Bay Area regionalism while ABAG and MTC had formal talks to find common ground. They are doing that now in the special joint Task Force, with seven members from each side. The delegations are led by the current Chair of each organization--Mayor Gwen Regalia of Walnut Creek for ABAG, and Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey for the MTC. John Fregonese, a planner from Portland and principal of Fregonese Calthorpe & Associates, and Don Blubaugh, a former Walnut Creek city manager, are facilitating the meetings. Both have worked on Contra Costa County's semi-official "Saving the Future" planning project, which seeks to provide an advisory countywide vision but which also interrelates the plans of the individual jurisdictions.

The now commonly accepted remedy for an overloaded road system and the high price of housing is "smart growth," an often hazy term that generally suggests building denser settlements around transit stops. The problem with smart growth is that it can look very different to different cities. City councils have the power to decide how land will be used, and they know that their constituents are often resistant to increases in density even as they decry sprawl. So the real issue is how to induce the cities and counties of the Bay Area to analyze and cooperate on growth problems in such a way as to satisfy broad regional needs as well as to advance the interests of a particular city.

At the first meeting, on June 25, 2003, the facilitators handed out a list of points that had been made in individual interviews held beforehand with each participant. There was then a round of comments by each participant on the issues before the task force. It was clear from this round that the facilitators needed to prepare problem statements for the next meeting on land use and transportation; improving the information available to decisionmakers; improving both organizations' two-way communication with the public; and the fairness and efficiency of representation, including dealing with the perception that as decisional bodies, "ABAG is too large and MTC is too small."

The second Task Force meeting, held on July 18, mostly discussed regional vision and planning, and implementation. The facilitators stated candidly that while both agencies are involved in planning for the future of the region, their activities are neither coordinated nor guided by a vision. This problem would be successfully resolved, they said, if both ABAG and MTC jointly developed and adopted a common regional vision, one that would define common goals and the actions to accomplish and monitor them, including developing tools acceptable to both agencies that would influence local of regional significance. They also need ways of informing local decisionmakers about the regional impacts of proposed local decisions, and about the regional policies related to such decisions.

Judging from its first two sessions, there seems to be implicit agreement among the ABAG-MTC Task Force members that land-use and transportation decisions must be coordinated, and the most likely scenario is by using state and federal funding as a selective incentive to the cities to cooperate, instead of creating a robust regional authority. But full agreement to do a region-level plan, even one focused solely on land use and transportation, is far from being reached.Spur logo

About the Authors: 

Peter Lydon and Paul Sedway are co-chairs of SPUR's State and Regional Affairs committee.

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