Need for State and Federal Oversight:
Much of the funding needed to develop infrastructure in the Bay Area comes from State and federal sources.
Pursuant to the passage of the Urban Mass Transportation Act in 1964, federal funds began to be directed to various local and regional transit improvement projects. To avoid the heavy-handed and physically taxing involvement of the federal government in thousands of local and regional projects, Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO’s) were established across the country.
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Their purpose was in part to monitor and oversee local and regional infrastructure projects consuming federal funds. In 1970, the California Legislature, also looking for a way of distancing itself from the multitudinous local and regional infrastructure projects underway, accepted the Federal initiative and established the Metropolitan Planning Commission (MTC) which became the 9-county Bay Area’s MPO.
For the next four decades UMTA (changed to the FTA in 1991) remained active in monitoring federally-funded transportation projects in order to ensure that federal guidelines were being followed and that funds were being spent prudently. They did a good job at this. However that all came to an end beginning in the 1990’s when Congress….heavily lobbied by large cities desiring autonomy….cut the authority and resources that the FTA needed to carry out this vital function. To make matters worse, as soon as the State Legislature set up MTC, it breathed a sigh of relief and turned its attention to other matters. So much for oversight.
Under the resulting “system”, local and regional agencies were left to oversee themselves, the result of which has been a continuing series of ill-conceived and often overpriced projects, including some of small public benefit, as well as cost overruns and delays. Unless and until something changes, large projects will continue to disappoint, because they don’t live up to the promises of their promoters, cost too much or take too long.
What Needs to be Done:
The State Legislature should immediately authorize the State Auditor to perform regular financial and management audits of any local or regional agency receiving large amounts of State funds. The Congress should reactivate the rigorous FHWA and FTA oversight of the past. In concert with revitalized State and federal oversight, local and regional agencies should initiate and define their projects more carefully with less input from outside developers and single purpose interest groups. And they should pick up the pace!
Projects should be better connected to the public interest and better managed, and include better and more objective analyses of viable alternatives. Endlessly discussing and writing about a project is not enough. The sooner it gets explicitly defined and put on a critical path schedule leading to a well-defined project completion date, the sooner it starts to move. Research and planning efforts should lead quickly and directly to beneficial public projects. EIR’s and other reports should be well organized, well written and free of repetition and irrelevant information.
Projects that used to take a few months to get under way now often take years or decades. This must stop.