The Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Ice Tea

Regional Measure 3 (RM3), on the June 2018 ballot of all nine Bay Area counties, if passed would increase tolls on state-owned bridges by $3.  Enabling legislation is Senate Bill 595 signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown on October 10, 2017.  SB 595 says,

To improve the quality of life and sustain the economy of the San Francisco Bay area, it is the intent of the Legislature to require the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to place on the ballot a measure authorizing the voters to approve an expenditure plan to improve mobility and enhance travel options on the bridges and bridge corridors to be paid for by an increase in the toll rate on the seven state-owned bridges within its jurisdiction.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) has developed a spending plan and placed RM3 on the ballot.  With MTC running the show, Nine-County Coalition participants cannot help by worry!

MTC’s forever growing bureaucratic power and its spendthrift tendencies have been the subject of numerous articles on this website.  Also often mentioned on this website are MTC’s origins as a product of Plan Bay Area, Senate Bill 375- “Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008,” and Assembly Bill 32- “California Global Warming Solutions Act.”  

However, it might also be useful to discuss MTC’s role as the official federal Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) tasked with promoting “sustainable development” as envisioned by federal legislation.

Birth of the Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs)

A fascinating article on the Federal Department of Transportation website tells the tale of the birth of federally-encouraged intra-state urban planning, which eventually morphed into the federal mandate for Metropolitan Planning Organizations -- apparently ignoring the Constitutional requirement that the Federal government’s jurisdiction is limited to inter-state matters.

Federal Highway Administrator Rex Whitton vigorously revived and grew the Federal Highway system.

Federal Highway Administrator Rex Whitton vigorously revived and grew the Federal Highway system.

The story goes that President John F. Kennedy inherited a federal highway system in disrepair, so he set out to fix things.  The result was The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1962, which stated that after July 1, 1965, the Secretary of Commerce

...shall not approve under section 105 of this title any program for projects in any urban area of more than fifty thousand population unless he finds that such projects are based on a continuing comprehensive transportation planning process carried on cooperatively by States and local communities…

To address the new planning requirements, State and urban officials formed ad hoc planning committees to reflect the "cooperative" element of the 3C process [comprehensive, continuous, coordinated] and hired consultants to gather and process data. Neither Section 9 nor the BPR's [Bureau of Public Roads] instructional memorandum on implementing it required formation of a permanent planning organization; however, the metropolitan planning organizations of today, required by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1973, would evolve from these early efforts to comply with the 3C requirement.

ISTEA – Pronounced “Ice Tea”

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) was signed into federal law by President George H. W. Bush in December 1991.

It focused on improving transportation, not as an end in itself, but as the means to achieve important national goals including economic progress, cleaner air, energy conservation, and social equity. ISTEA promoted a transportation system in which different modes and facilities—highway, transit, pedestrian, bicycle, aviation, and marine—were integrated to allow a "seamless" movement of both goods and people. New funding programs provided greater flexibility in the use of funds, particularly regarding using previously restricted highway funds for transit development, improved "intermodal" connections, and emphasized upgrades to existing facilities over building new capacity—particularly roadway capacity.

Things Always Roll Downhill

ISTEA set the stage by tying federal funding to a prescribed type of urban planning based on “comprehensive, continuous, coordinated” plans that promote clean air and energy conservation, and give equal emphasis to all modes of transportation, including public transit, biking and walking.  

Thus we see the birth of California Senate Bill 375 and of Plan Bay Area.  Senate Bill 375, signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, approaches the requirements of ISTEA via statements of efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change.  SB 375 is the legislation that enabled the establishment of Plan Bay Area.

Are We Stuck With the MTC?

Did ISTEA’s mandate for MPOs seal our fate to be stuck with an expensive gigantic bureaucracy attempting to rule where we live, what our neighborhoods look like, and how we get where we want to go?  Yes! If we refuse to understand that the money MTC squanders telling residents what to do can only come from one source:  taxpayers.  The federal government said no money unless you have MPOs.  Taxpayers could say no tax increases will be condoned or approved by voters until the Bay Area MPO becomes more financially responsible and more accountable to residents. 

What Could Accountability Look Like?

Accountability is impossible under the constant tsunami of multi-purpose mega projects forever emanating from the state legislature and from MTC – while potholes get bigger and deeper.  Less wide-ranging projects would help in allowing voters to produce a report card on each project.

Accountability is also impossible when so many unelected bureaucrats are placed in charge of our hard-earned cash.  There is therefore room to argue that the MTC decision makers need to be elected by voters to perform their specific functions on the MTC.  The downside would be that such an idea legitimizes regionalism.  A region is not a jurisdiction such as a city, a county, or a state.  A better idea would be to change the structure of the MTC into a Council of Governments (most of the 18 California MPOs are either Councils of Governments or Associations of Governments, not commissions such as the MTC).  The Council could then negotiate Join Powers Agreements to accomplish inter-county projects.

But the ultimate guarantor of accountability is scrutiny by a vigilant and educated citizenry.