By Richard Rubin.
The Legislature will be looking at a bill introduced by Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-10th Dist.) which would abolish the powerful Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission as well as its kindred agency, the Bay Area Toll Authority, and replace them with directly elected boards.
To begin with, 16 of MTC’s 21 members are already elected officials appointed by other elected representatives so the distinction is basically moot.
The problem is this may not solve the problems and could even exacerbate them if the underlying causes are not accurately diagnosed. Elected bodies are not always ipso facto more accountable.
The real questions are: What is their assigned role and are they carrying it out in the best interests of the public?
Take for example the California Legislature whose powers over reapportionment were turned over in 2008 to a non-partisan and independent Citizen’s ReDistricting Commission to eliminate the usual decision-making behind closed doors and neutralize the traditional advantages to the majority party which at this time happens to be the Democrats.
The objective was the achievement of fairer, more competitive campaigns over time that would force candidates to take more moderate positions leading up to the general election and discarding the divisive ideological baggage.
The MTC has sweeping powers over transit planning in the 9-county area while the BATA makes the rules for seven state-run bridges.
While few will contest that the MTC has become a voracious monolith since its inception in 1970 with ever greater say over the chronic transportation mess—an issue that has bedeviled most of the state’s gridlocked big cities—it is now launching a power play to absorb another regional agency—the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG).
ABAG’S domain is housing, environmental quality, land use planning and economic development and its birth preceded MTC’s in 1961.
These regional agencies are designed to fill the voids created by municipal regulations often loosely enforced if at all or not uniformly applied because of clashing political agendas, conflicting local priorities or simply civic indifference.
The ideas undergirding the push for more region-based solutions are often the most sensible ones since many localities will look the other way rather than get caught up in vicious neighbor-to-neighbor turf disputes which make thorny issues such as acceptable housing density limits, excessive parking restrictions, more bicycle lanes, or developing giant shopping malls that replace small businesses difficult to resolve.
Every one of these issues shares one thing in common: reliable transportation systems that reduce congestion. Since this is an inseparable element for all planners, the MTC believes it should extend its long tentacles into areas well beyond its legal jurisdiction.
That view is opposed by Assemblyman Mark Levine (D-San Rafael) who has introduced a bill which abolishes the MTC and seeks to replace it with a different group of directly elected officials who he thinks will be more beholden to the public.
That may be a disputable premise since it is the institutional culture of the MTC which has turned it into a monolithic entity grasping for ever more power that needs to be changed. Replacing the commissioners may not accomplish much if the bureaucrats remain in control. In well run agencies the boards set policy and staff implements it. At the MTC it appears there has been a significant role reversal.
The mechanisms through which regional agencies are accountable to the local citizenry already exist. They are called city councils and boards of supervisors who are theoretically the front line guardians of citizens’ interests.
It the principal aim is greater accountability and making regional bodies more attuned to local needs, cities and counties should be given a much stronger voice at the planning table perhaps even including a veto power if the decisions made are highly adverse to a community’s wishes.
As things stand regional bodies can run roughshod over local concerns aided by the monetary clout they wield. Board appointees are in an untenable position: they can either fall in line with recommendations that may not reflect the most urgent and often differing concerns of the individual communities or risk the loss of needed revenues and personal influence if they resist.
However total dismantling or weakening regional institutions (the Coastal Commission, Local Agency Formation Commissions (LAFCOs) or the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway Transportation District could be the next targets to name just a few) is likely to foster the same deficiencies that were the basis for their creation.
Fixing the existing ones may be preferable and less costly than inventing new models.
Housing, transportation, economic growth, land use planning, water conservation, clean energy initiatives and a myriad of other issues overlap political jurisdictions and demand intra-regional cooperation.
Even more so, regional agencies can be a catalyst for forming partnerships that bring together public and private institutions with sufficient resources to do the heavy lifting for towns and cities without imposing onerous tax burdens when they cannot do it alone.
A newly constituted MTC Board with no experience and equally ambitious politicians may produce mixed results and spark nastier battles while the savviest advocates and lobbyists will continue to reap the lion’s share of the pie.
Levine’s bill may start a badly needed conversation, but removing elected officials in favor of others without sufficient cause may not be palatable to individuals who take their appointed positions very seriously.