The Decline and Fall of the Bay Area’s Transportation Agency

The State Legislature created the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission (hereinafter MTC) in 1970. At the time it was widely anticipated that MTC would put an end to parochialism and bring a regional perspective to what was already recognized as a serious regional problem. As set forth in Title 7.1 of the California Government Code, the underlying reason for bringing MTC into existence was simple and to the point: Article 66502 of Title 7.1 reads as follows: “There is hereby created…. the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to provide comprehensive regional transportation planning for the region comprised of the City and County of San Francisco and the Counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano, and Sonoma.”

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But this didn’t happen, and as a result both the Region and MTC have fallen on hard times. Ridership on buses and trains is declining and an ever increasing flood of cars is overwhelming Bay Area roadways. With respect to MTC people are increasingly asking: “Where’s the Beef” and, “Is there any content…...or is it all process? These problems didn’t develop by accident and they weren’t inevitable. Here’s a part of what happened:

MTC’s early years were devoted to patiently and persistently explaining the benefits of regional planning and coordination to skeptical Bay Area municipalities and balky transportation agencies fearful of losing their autonomy. And it was making headway. Unfortunately this early commitment to returning balance to the region’s transportation systems lasted for only a few years, after which things returned to the old ways.  As a result, for the last four decades each local jurisdiction has vigorously promoted its own parochial projects, often designed to create local construction jobs and/or build real estate fortunes, with nary a thought given to abating the Region’s growing transportation problems.

What caused MTC to abdicate its regional planning responsibilities? The answer to that question would take more space than we have here. However, here are two of the reasons: (more in future editions of this Newsletter)

1.) The Process for Selecting MTC Commissioners is Fatally Flawed: BATWG recently conducted an extensive investigation of how the MTC counties select their respective MTC Board members and turned up some startling facts. For instance we discovered that a prospective MTC Board member‘s understanding of and commitment to solving regional transportation problems has virtually nothing to do with why he or she was being selected. On the contrary it appears that in most cases, all that mattered to the County selection committees is the Commissioner’s ability to bring money back to his or her home county to pay for assorted local highway modifications and other parochial projects. For a detailed example of how the process has been watered down, click here to see excerpts from BATWG’s March 7th letter to the Contra Costa County’s City Selection Committee.

Instead of helping its Commissioners to expand beyond their initial constraints to become regional transportation leaders the MTC staff went along with if not actually encouraged this parochial pork barrel approach.  To the point where as now constituted, MTC is little more than a funding pipeline between State and federal funding agencies and Bay Area cities and counties seeking funds for local projects. MoneyPig (1)Because of its role as broker between competing local entities the MTC staff is able to cobble together a number of local projects and then present it to State and federal authorities as the Bay Area’s Regional Plan. This charade occurs year after year because so long as everyone gets his or her piece of the pie, no one complains.  And it goes without saying that commissioners who regard their primary reason for sitting on the MTC Board as being to secure MTC funding for local projects are in a very weak position when it comes to carrying out their MTC oversight responsibilities and calling the MTC staff to account when needed. So much for regional planning.

2.) Managing by Expedience: To make matters worse, MTC management in recent years has tended to be both short-sighted and passive, especially when it comes to taking responsibility for addressing and resolving major regional problems. Last July, when the current MTC director announced his retirement here is part of what an East Bay Times editor had to say about the situation: The outgoing manager of MTC “touts his agency as ‘action-oriented and project-based,’ but that has translated into piecemeal construction, pathetic planning and a lack of long-range vision. The agency merely hands out money for one politically popular project after another with little sense of where it will all lead.”

From here MTC has nowhere to go but up.

This article was featured in Newsletter Issue 11. Click here to go back to the newsletter.