To Learn and Serve: An Exit Interview With Departing MTC Director Therese McMillan

Therese McMillan standing outside in a black turtleneck, red blazer

Photo by Mark Jones through MTC

At the end of January, Therese McMillan, the executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), will retire after a three-decade career in transportation planning. Therese started out at as a transportation planner at MTC. In 2009, then-President Barack Obama appointed her to serve as deputy administrator of the Federal Transit Administration in the U.S. Department of Transportation. She subsequently served as acting FTA administrator from 2014 to 2016 before returning to California as planning chief for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro).

Therese came back to MTC in 2019, shortly after the agency had merged staffs with ABAG. At a critical time in the region’s work to reduce carbon emissions, the merger brought together the region’s transportation planning function and its land use and housing planning function.

Therese also spent six years as an instructor of transportation funding and finance at San José State University’s Mineta Transportation Institute. SPUR President and CEO Alicia John-Baptiste spoke with her about how MTC and ABAG have evolved over time, what she learned working at the federal level, and how she grew into her role as a leader in transportation equity.


This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.


Alicia John-Baptiste: You’ve spent the majority of your time at MTC. How has the purpose and its mission changed, and how have the needs of the Bay Area changed?


Therese McMillan: I joined MTC in January 1984, when it was a more traditional metropolitan planning organization. Our long-range transportation plans for the region were all about the projects and who gets what funding in what county. It was about building stuff. And then in the ’90s, there was a significant move to focus on state of good repair, which today you think, “Well, of course we’re going to invest in preserving our infrastructure.” Coordination with the transit operators was a thing even then, but it was much more competitive. Rail versus bus. The suburbs versus the urban. In the 2000s, the agency started to move more aggressively to the transportation-land use connection. When we created the Transportation for Livable Communities program, we were beginning to say, “If we’re going to reduce the number of people driving alone in cars, we have to start developing policies around that.” At the beginning of my career, it was all about air quality. That was the flagship of environmental sensitivity for metropolitan planning organizations. It’s very interesting to see how much that sphere has broadened in terms of what we, as a metropolitan transportation organization, need to do.

So fast forward to where we are today. I think a couple of things are really astounding leaps. It started in the latter part of [my predecessor] Steve Heminger’s tenure with MTC convening CASA [the Committee to House the Bay Area]: this idea that transportation, housing, the environment and the economy are inextricably linked. You literally can’t make progress in one without parallel progress in the others, particularly on housing. This was a big, mind-blowing thing for me when I went to work for the feds. I saw different parts of the country and I’d go, “Whoa!” I mean on balance, we were so much better situated economically. It wasn’t until housing became unattainable here that I think we realized, “Oh, wait a minute. This is a moment where we simply can’t plan in our silos anymore.” The idea of the whole system working together began to really grow in the last 10 years. So, it’s been a really interesting arc of good forward progress. Distinctly different from the really project-driven nature of the [previous transportation] plan. The cost-benefit and performance analytics that we’ve attached to projects in the long-range plan is much more rigorous than it ever was before.


Alicia John-Baptiste: It’s not actually obvious that MTC would convene CASA, but that change completely unlocked how we approached housing as a region. And it strikes me that acknowledging the transportation-land use connection in some ways also drove the integration of MTC and ABAG, making it logical for MTC to convene CASA and for the agency to embrace housing in the same way that it traditionally has embraced transportation. Does that seem right?


Therese McMillan: It seems totally right, because anywhere else in the state, the big regional transportation agencies — SACOG in Sacramento, SANDAG in San Diego, SCAG in Southern California — had responsibility for land use and housing. We were the only one that split [transportation and land use into two agencies]. When the MTC and ABAG staffs were merged in 2017, it really started establishing a climate of not transportation versus housing but transportation and housing in one ecosystem. We don’t have horrible commutes just because people decide, “Hey, let’s all drive at the same time on the freeway!” No, it happens because they’re living miles away from job centers. The jobs-housing imbalance was getting wildly exacerbated with housing unaffordability. So, the fact that we needed to plan in parallel in these spaces was really important, and having a unified team just naturally advances that. And I’m very proud, very proud, of the fact that when we did Plan Bay Area 2050, there was a recognition from the outset that both ABAG and MTC have to adopt this. And as the executive director for both agencies, I took that very seriously, blessed with the leadership of [MTC Chair] Alfredo Pedroza and [ABAG Executive Board President] Jesse Arreguin, who just said, “You know, we’ve got to be able to work together.” And Scott Haggerty, my first chair. He was very interested in the continuing governance question. It was part of this very complicated compact between the two agencies, with the merged staff. Step one: merge the staff. Step two: continue these discussions on merging the governance. We didn’t get to a complete merger. We did establish joint committees, specifically in legislation, and for all practical purposes and planning. And I think the two leaders agreed, particularly during COVID, that we had to focus on governing as opposed to the governance in order to advance what we needed to do.


Alicia John-Baptiste: I’ve been in conversations where the question has been: Who leads on the Bay Area’s environmental strategies? And oftentimes MTC is nominated. But is that right? Does MTC have the authority for that?


Therese McMillan: There’s one experience from my time away that became a cornerstone of how I view public service and leadership. When I went to work for the feds, I was told quickly, “Hey Bay Area girl, you guys do a lot of stuff, but frankly, there’s a lot more to this country. It’s not all about you.” The Golden State snapping its towel in the locker room was not an appreciated thing. I learned so much by being open to asking: What does it take to really develop national policy that works in South Dakota as well as Georgia as well as California? It became apparent to me that no one can do it by themselves. Any time you are looking to see, “How do I make advances as an institution?” you ask the question: Is my role to lead? Is my role to partner? Is my role to support someone else that actually can do a better job? Or sometimes it’s my role just to get the hell out of the way, because I’m not bringing value to the table. Sometimes we’re not the best ones to lead. Maybe we have the financial resources, but we don’t have the technical capacity. Maybe we don’t have the deep institutional relationships — someone else holds those. Rather than trying to replicate it, why don’t we take advantage of that and see if we can join the table as opposed to building a table by ourselves?

So, to your point on environment, I think this is a space where, quite frankly, we may not be the best leader. It may be BARC [the Bay Area Regional Collaborative] with the air district, with MTC, with BCDC, with ABAG. Those policymakers have rallied around developing how we tackle our climate portfolio for the region. And I think that’s entirely appropriate, particularly with the environment. My experience has been that, with environmental issues, regulation is a huge tool. Just look at air quality. Honestly, sometimes you’ve got to step in with that big hammer. MTC is not a regulatory agency. But the air district, as one example, is a regulatory agency. So, you begin to appreciate who can bring what. MTC is often asked to be the facilitator, the coordinator, the collaborator. And that’s often really important. But even then, I think it’s always smart to ask those questions.


Alicia John-Baptiste: Let’s go back to when you started as executive director. About a year into your tenure, COVID-19 hit. What did it change?


Therese McMillan: The federal government was saying, “I’m coming in with billions of bailout dollars. MTC, you’re the designated recipient.” So, the impact on and response of transit just vaulted to the top, not surprisingly. And I had to turn a lot of attention in a very different way to BATA [the Bay Area Toll Authority]. We experienced a significant drop in transit ridership, which meant that our financial portfolios were another immediate thing that we had to address. And we had to pull the toll takers out [as a social distancing measure] overnight. We went overnight into all electric tolling. We had planned for it. We knew what it was going to look like, and we had a five-year plan — and then suddenly it just happened. That became an immediate issue, and all the attendant things attached to that, which included calling for an equity lens to be applied to the tolling fines and penalties and fees.

Those were the two hyper-immediate policy arenas that took attention. But in addition to that, I was very concerned and spent a lot of time taking care of my staff, and I am not apologetic about that. When I inherited this merged staff, the technicalities had all been in place, but we did not have a merged culture. So, I had thrown a lot of energy into that during the first year, which was a good thing, because then suddenly, I’ve got over 300 people going, “Oh, my God! What’s happening?” And that took a lot of my attention and energy and spirit just to say, “I have a responsibility to do what I can to help this team get through this crisis.” Of course the summer of reckoning happened that summer, so we were also dealing with the murder of George Floyd and racial justice awareness and demand on top of the stresses of COVID. It was a tough time. And I felt that I had to personally invest in the fact that I was leading a team of people, not just an institution, through all of that.


Alicia John-Baptiste: I think it has such a profound ripple effect. Because you’re holding a team that constitutes an institution, and the institution is holding other institutions and other teams. As whole as MTC could be during that period of time meant more strength to the 27 transit operators and to all of the organizations that were trying to move the housing agenda and the transportation agenda. It may have felt to you like you were going internal, but I think that the impact is profoundly external in terms of the thousands of people that wholeness ultimately impacted.


Therese McMillan: Oh, wow. That’s really a reflective observation. I would say that the pandemic changed working relationships with our partners in ways that are still being felt. With transit operators, clearly, but also with CalTrans — we had to work in a very different space with them. I developed a strong partnership with the new executive director, Dina El-Tawansy, who was hired maybe a year into COVID. And I think you’re right that there was a sense of folks looking to make sense of all of this, and turning to MTC going, “What do you think?” And I would say, too, it’s ironic when you look back that we were doing Plan Bay Area 2050. Even though suddenly this whole uncertainty just fell right on top of it, it allowed folks a common space to come to. In a way, it was kind of ideal that we had begun to ask questions about, “Where are our strengths? Where are our challenges? Where do we need to work?” We had a forum that was already exploring and asking those questions. Maybe that’s a reason we didn’t feel completely overwhelmed by it. Because at least we had a place to kind of feel it together and begin to work together through that process.


Alicia John-Baptiste: When you think about the totality of your career, what are you particularly proud of?


Therese McMillan: In terms of an initiative, it has to be MTC and ABAG’s Equity Platform. I had to grow into that. When I was a beginning planner working at MTC, I was involved with a four-year lawsuit against the agency, Darensburg v. MTC, which was focused on the bus versus rail issue. [The plaintiffs in the case alleged that MTC’s funding decisions purposefully favored train riders and denied equitable funding to bus riders of color.] We prevailed in district court and in the court of appeals, but I came out of that realizing in a much deeper way that while we may have won the lawsuit, the issue of insufficient resources to provide transit to those who most need it was still there. That hadn’t been fixed. Once I was with the Federal Transit Administration, I was in a space to be able to begin shaping what I learned from that. Rebuilding our entire civil rights department and restructuring our Title 6 administrative and regulatory responsibilities was a huge accomplishment. I led the effort for the first real administrative guidance under the environmental justice executive order. At LA Metro, we were dealing with homeless issues, and in the wake of Measure M passing, this massive sales tax, we had a lot of activists going, “How are you going to ensure that that reaches those who most need it?” And I wanted to jump into that space and develop something to help guide the thinking. The fact that it grew out of my learning means a lot to me. I realized that I didn’t know it all.

But the second thing, and it sort of cheers me up, is what people say about the impact I’ve had on their lives in terms of the mentoring I’ve done, the teaching that I did at Mineta Institute, the fact that I really tried, in whatever role I was in, to lift up young people in their careers, women in particular, and professionals of color. The fact that I have people who say, “You’ve inspired me,” has been incredible. I’ve had this incredible opportunity to learn and serve. I mean, that’s what it’s about.