Regional Planning Without Regional Government

The San Diego Association of Governments has achieved a remarkable degree of integration over the years. Should we follow its lead?

Urbanist Article July 1, 2004

Those of us who advocate for regional planning in the Bay Area worry a lot about how fragmented government is here. Our region has seven million people, nine counties, 101 cities, and many special-purpose governments, like the East Bay Regional Parks District, the Marin Municipal Water District, and BART.

The "official" region consists of the nine counties that touch the Bay, although there are many other ways of defining what the "real" region is. A mapping of the relationships between businesses shows that the Silicon Valley economic cluster is quite distinct from the Oakland/San Francisco economic cluster. On the other hand, employers anywhere in the nine counties can draw on a labor pool that resides not only in the nine Bay Area counties, but in areas that extend far in all directions. Meanwhile, our natural resource base--what they used to call the "hinterlands" of an urban area--extends into the Sierras and up and down the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems that drain into the Bay.

Southern California/Baja California Annual Average Growth Rates, 1990-2000Southern California/Baja California Annual Average Growth Rates, 1990-2000

San Diego, like the Bay Area, does not accommodate all of its housing need withint the "official region". It exports much of its housing need to Riverside County to the North, Imperial County to the East, and across the Mexican border to the South. This jobs/housing imbalance creates serious commute problems with people needing to travel great distances to get to work.

More and more, the urbanized areas of the State are coalescing into two great, sprawling megalopolises, one in Southern California and one in Northern California. Defining our region in this way, we are part of a large urbanized quadrangle that extends from Monterey to Modesto to Sacramento to Santa Rosa.

As the size of the physical region grows faster than our ability to manage and plan it, the weaknesses of our institutions' collective decision-making processes become even more apparent. There is essentially no regional planning in the Bay Area. The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) is a voluntary joint-powers agency, which exists by the consent of the cities and counties that have chosen to join it. ABAG is powerless to tell any city or county where or how it should manage growth. It is essentially an organization beholden to local governments and charged with protecting local governmental powers, such as land-use control.

Meanwhile, sitting next to ABAG is the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). MTC is our state-chartered Metropolitan Planning Organization--a legal designation for the organization that receives and spends federal (and some state) transportation dollars. The governing board of MTC consists of appointments from each of the nine counties. And the dynamics of MTC funding are, essentially, to give each county funds in proportion to its "night-time population"--counting only people who live (and vote) in the county, as opposed to also counting the transportation impacts of people who work there. MTC usually defers to county Congestion Management Agencies (CMAs) as to how each county spends its transportation dollars.

So the closest thing we have to regional transportation planning in the Bay Area is actually the county-level work carried out by county CMAs. Our CMA is called the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, and it has just released a draft of a solid, 30-year transportation plan.

And that's about it. No true regional transportation planning that looks at all transportation modes can extend across county borders. A few agencies with a multi-county scope, like AC Transit, BART, or Caltrain, can plan across county borders, but these agencies only plan for their own system's needs. And there is certainly no ability to direct transportation investments to the places with the greatest densities, or to direct land-use plans around transportation infrastructure.

All of this adds up to the underlying truth that we have no governing institutions that allow us to make decisions for the good of the region.

It's Different in San Diego

This is in direct contrast to the San Diego region, where there is a functioning regional government.

The first critical fact is this: the entire San Diego region is in one county. And one county means one Congestion Management Agency. So things are a lot simpler to begin with.

The second critical fact is that SANDAG, the San Diego Association of Governments, has become the single regional planning agency for both transportation and land use.

SANDAG began as a voluntary joint powers agency, like ABAG, in 1966. It was then called the Comprehensive Planning Organization, and it lived within the San Diego County Government. But in 1970, the state designated this agency as the Metropolitan Planning Organization, equivalent to our MTC.

In 1980 the agency was renamed SANDAG, and over the past 30 years it has gradually been given more regional planning responsibilities, while the Bay Area instead created more distinct, single-purpose agencies. In 1971, the State assigned new responsibilities to SANDAG, designating it as the Regional Transportation Planning Agency, Airport Land Use Commission, and areawide clearinghouse for federal/state grant reviews. In 1979, the State gave it the task of preparing the Regional Housing Needs Determination, just as the State gave the same task to ABAG in the Bay Area. In 1987, voters adopted a transportation sales tax and designated SANDAG as the agency to spend the money. In 1990, the State designated SANDAG as the Integrated Waste Management Task Force.

It went on like this. But then in 1999, Senator Steve Peace proposed an even further consolidation of regional agencies, which required state legislation. The first iteration of this proposal would have created a Regional Infrastructure Transportation Agency, bringing together SANDAG, the water board, and all the transportation providers into one agency. This bill failed.

The second attempt was a bill that put in motion a process known as the Joint Agency Negotiating Team on Consolidation. Negotiations under this bill took place in 2000 and 2001.

This was superseded by another process, which worked in 2001 and 2002, the Regional Government Efficiency Commission.

If all of this sounds familiar, it's because the Bay Area also often settles for processes to "look at" regional government options. We have one underway at this moment in the form of Tom Torlakson's Senate Bill 849, which proposes to create a Joint Policy Committee between ABAG and MTC to study opportunities for improved coordination. But in San Diego's case, building on a stronger agency with a history of incremental consolidation, their two process bills resulted in a regional consensus on a consolidation plan and in the passage of an actual restructuring bill that went into effect on January 1, 2003. Senate Bill 1703 created a new consolidated regional agency.

While the new agency will still be called SANDAG, it is actually constituted on a different legal basis than the old SANDAG: it is a creature of the State legislature (like MTC) rather than a joint powers authority created by local government. In addition, the new SANDAG contains major functions previously performed by the Metropolitan Transit Development Board (MTDB) and North San Diego County Transit District (NCTD). The bill also created a new voting system and added an advisory representative from Imperial County to the east.

Over the past two years, the staff and boards have been going through a phased series of transition steps. Ultimately, the two transit agencies will exist as operators of transit service (and perhaps in the future the two transit operators will merge into one), while SANDAG will have responsibility for transit planning, project management, and construction.

Because of being a one-county region, and because SANDAG has been given so much authority over the years, regional governance in San Diego involves many fewer agencies than in the Bay Area.

Lessons for Us

Where the Bay Area seems unable to make any progress toward integrated regional planning, San Diego has been able to make significant institutional changes in a sustained way over several decades. True, it is only a single county, but there have emerged from local governments several officials who are true regional-planning champions.

On the other hand, it's not like San Diego is paradise. The regional plan which SANDAG has prepared is far less specific than the unofficial Smart Growth plan adopted by Bay Area counties. When I described the amazing degree of regional planning coordination to a friend, her response was, "doesn't this prove that regional planning doesn't matter?" Meaning, in spite of having apparently better tools for regional scale governance, San Diego is just as sprawling, and even more auto-dependent than the Bay Area. San Diego is also suffering from spillover outside of its official region, just like we are: just as the Bay Area is exporting its unmet housing need into the Central Valley, San Diego is exporting its unmet housing need into Riverside County to the north and Tijuana to the south.

I think at this point the verdict is still out on whether more consolidated regional governance can result in more livable, more sustainable, or more affordable regions. San Diego clearly needs more time to show results. Maybe San Diego would be in worse shape if its government had been more fragmented. Or maybe the values of the region are such that even with an ideal governmental structure, it would still end up "choosing" sprawl as its urban pattern.

Up here, many of us have focused our hopes on the idea of merging ABAG and MTC. This was the general direction of Bay Vision 2020 about 15 years ago and of the current Torlakson bills. The Bay Vision recommendations would have carried into the new merged agency the present system of having the entire governing board be comprised entirely of city and county officials, who would not be likely to support constraints on local prerogatives. Presumably, any recommendations that emerge from the Torlakson study process will also follow this model. The idea is that transportation and land use will be better coordinated, if nothing else.

Returning from our trip to San Diego, I wonder if we have focused on the wrong kind of regional consolidation. The fact is, ABAG is so powerless that merging it with MTC creates no new ability to do regional land use planning, absent further powers to influence region-impacting local land-use decisions. The kinds of transportation planning we all want--directing investment to the places that will reinforce center-oriented development--could happen today if MTC chose to follow sound priorities. MTC can rely on the same ABAG analysis now as a separate agency that it would have if the two agencies were "divisions" of a bigger agency. And ABAG has just as much ability to undertake non-binding regional plans as it would have if it lived inside a new bigger agency.

Since local governments do all the land-use planning, there will be no significant coordination between land use and transportation unless something far more radical happens--like giving the State government or a regional agency a real role in approving local planning decisions (which is something the Oregon and Washington growth management acts do).

A Different Approach

What I saw in San Diego makes me think that a more promising approach might be to focus instead on the consolidation of regional transit operators, the latest phase in San Diego's evolving governmental structure. Our situation today, with 27 independent transit operators, directly leads to disconnected transit service and is wasteful of our scarce transportation dollars.

Imagine if BART and Caltrain, just for starters, were one agency. They are the primary inter-county regional rail providers, serving different parts of a region that wants to be more integrated. But they are viewed as competitors, especially for federal funding. In spite of the fact that MTC works hard to build a consensus about regional transportation priorities, advocates of specific transportation projects regularly fly to Washington, D.C. to tout their own projects and say bad things about everyone else's. If the competing systems were one, at least some people would be able to shift their focus to interconnectivity and quality across the entire transit network.

Looking at integration of some of the other regional transit operators (such as AC Transit or Golden Gate Transit) opens up even more important possibilities. For some trips that are currently served by buses, passengers could have more frequent and faster door-to-door service if the buses fed into the rail lines through a series of timed transfers. The rail network--primarily BART and Caltrain--would then become the organizing spine for a whole network of feeder transit lines. More importantly, we could start to solve the problem of transit service ending at county lines. Fare coordination that would enable transit riders to pay just once per trip would be relatively simple to accomplish.

Of course there are enormous obstacles. Each of these transit operators has its own distinct funding sources and board of directors. BART and Caltrain have different rail gauges. The systems have various strengths and weaknesses.

And although to most residents, BART is thought to the "the best" transit system in the region, policy makers have good reasons to be afraid of BART dominating any new, consolidated transit agency. What if the new agency didn't give standard-gauge rail service equal treatment? What if BART's culture of sometimes contentious labor-management relations lead to a strike that shut down the entire rail network in the region?

But none of these objections seems to me to automatically outweigh the potential benefits. Transit operations all over the world run service with multiple, non-interoperable technologies. Many levels of government rely on binding arbitration to resolve labor-disputes while prohibiting strikes.

It may be that merging regional transit operators--and why not start with the two primary rail systems--will get us more tangible benefits than the equally difficult prospect of merging ABAG and MTC.

If nothing else, SANDAG should inspire us to remember that governing institutions are human creations, not facts of nature, and we have the ability to change them. END

About the Authors: 

Gabriel Metcalf is SPUR's Deputy Director.

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