Let’s Declare January MTC Awareness Month!

The Bay Area’s MTC (Metropolitan Transportation Commission) looks really good on paper. It has an attractive website rich with information, it has the support of potent organizations such as SPUR and the Bay Area Council, and since its hostile takeover of ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) MTC holds the transportation and development purse strings.

Multibillion-dollar Transbay Center opened with much fanfare August 2018. Closed for structural failure six weeks after.

Multibillion-dollar Transbay Center opened with much fanfare August 2018. Closed for structural failure six weeks after.

However, look closer and the stress lines start coming into focus: persistent gridlock traffic, a transit/biking-for-all policy that seems to have no roots in reality, vanishing parking spaces, gentrification, obliteration of neighborhood character, questionable imposition of region-wide taxes, density appropriate only for neighborhoods boasting more dogs than kids. To be fair, the MTC can always point to state legislation enabling its actions. But legislation provides the skeleton plan, and the MTC gives the plan copious flesh. Also, while we can vote a legislator out of office if we do not like his/her plans, we are stuck with whatever MTC bureaucrats devise.

Where you detect challenges look for opportunities

The MTC has felt to Bay Area residents familiar with it as an entity set in stone, partly because of its nature as a bureaucracy, and partly because the federal government says we must have a Metropolitan Planning Organization (whether we like it or not). However, this New Year brings to those not happy with the MTC a couple of opportunities. Thus, let’s declare January 2019 MTC Awareness Month.

* Steve Heminger, MTC’s Executive Director is retiring on February 28, 2019, and MTC is looking for his replacement. Heminger is the principal architect of MTC’s growth, influence, and consolidation of power. As such, he receives emphatic accolades and criticisms.

“After more than 17 years at the helm, Steve stands among the giants of the transportation world," observed MTC Chair and Rohnert Park City Councilmember Jake Mackenzie, who announced Heminger's retirement at the Commission's regular July meeting. "By charting a steady course through often-turbulent waters, Steve has shaped a bigger, safer and sounder Bay Area transportation network in which his legacy will be found in items as small as a Clipper card or as big as the new Bay Bridge.” MTC News

Steve Heminger, the executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, announced Wednesday that he will end an 18-year reign by retiring early next year. It can’t come soon enough … The region’s freeways are gridlocked. Public transit systems are in disarray. Commute times continue to increase. Heminger 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. Mercury News Editorial

Of course, Heminger and his supporters could blame legislators and the voting public for not giving MTC money and power in sufficient quantities to solve gridlock and other Bay Area ills. And one could say that completion of the new Bay Bridge was indeed a colossal accomplishment. Unlike California’s High-Speed Rail project, the bridge is up and running after cost overruns of around $5.5 billion and a final price tag of $6.5 billion.

Bay Area residents might want to contact their representative on the MTC Board and express any concern they have regarding the next MTC Executive Director. A full roster of Commissioners and what cities and counties they represent is on the MTC website. Writing a few letters to the editor and opinion pieces would also help.

* MTC Commissioners’ Terms Expire February 2019. This event presents opportunity No. 2 for Bay Area residents.

Major changes to MTC will take either Herculean efforts on the part of residents aware of the agency’s shortcomings or a transformative order from a higher level of government (MTC functions as the Bay Area’s federally-mandated Metropolitan Planning Organization). However minor changes that tweak how the MTC operates are possible. How Commissioners are selected would be a start. So, here are some basics.

Enabling Legislation: Sections 66502-66504 of the California Government Code enables the establishment of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, describes how the agency functions, and prescribes how its Commissioners are selected.

Voting members: Counties of San Francisco, Contra Costa and San Mateo get two members each. Counties of Alameda and Santa Clara get three members each. Counties of Marin, Napa, Solano and Sonoma get one member each. The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) gets one member.

Non-Voting members: One representative each from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the U.S. Department of Transportation, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, and the California State Transportation Agency.

Selection Method: Counties have selection committees. Names picked by selection committees are then approved by mayors and/or city councils.

Challenges: Bureaucracies are usually not noted for their transparency; but the opaqueness with which MTC handles the selection of its Commissioners is intensive. Such obscurity prevents Bay Area residents – the recipients of MTC’s mandates – from attempting to influence the agency’s direction.

Section 66504 of the California Government Code mentions selection of Commissioners, but is not clear on two crucial points: 1) Must a Commissioner be a public official to represent his/her city or county on the MTC board? Section 66504 does not say so; it merely says that if the Commissioner is a public official, he/she must vacate his/her seat as Commissioner upon leaving public office. 2) There is no requirement that the selection process be transparent or that Bay Area residents be advised when and how selection is to take place.

Section 66504 - Each commissioner’s term of office is four years; provided, however, that the commissioners appointed by the Mayor of the City of Oakland and the Mayor of the City of San Jose shall have an initial term of office ending in February 2015. A commissioner appointed as a public officer vacates his or her commission seat upon ceasing to hold such public office unless the appointing authority consents to completion of the term of office. Commissioners shall be selected for their special familiarity with the problems and issues in the field of transportation.

Upon much Googling we located a couple of current letters posted on the Solano County (an attachment to the county’s December 4, 2018 agenda) and on the City of Los Altos (an attachment to the City Council meeting of December 11, 2018) websites from MTC’s Secretary to the Commission addressed to the counties’ selection committee regarding the upcoming expiration of term of Commissioners. These form letters noted that “MTC Commission members may be elected or appointed officials or members of the general public.” We are betting that each Bay Area selection committee received one of these form letters, but to find them one would need to comb the Internet and then click though several layers of links!

Action Suggested: Transforming the nature of anything we don’t like requires effort. Given the considerable power of today’s MTC, change requires taking small bites at the agency’s structure. Concerted effort to communicate with elected officials who are in a position to appoint MTC Commissioners or to influence the selection of the next MTC Executive Director could be a start.

Effective efforts will entail Internet research, and if necessary even filing Freedom of Information Act requests to determine who in your city and/or county is in charge of appointing MTC Commissioners.

A Nine-County Coalition Participant’s View

Emails freely fly between participants of the loose coalition we call the Nine-County Coalition. This website quotes from such email exchanges when participants specifically allow it, sometimes with attribution and sometimes without. Here are the helpful views regarding MTC Commissioners of one of the transportation experts in the group.

While I think it is unlikely that anything we can do over the next several weeks will cause any change in the MTC Commissioner appointment/reappointment process, one thing we know for sure is, if we don’t try anything, nothing will change.

In the long run, the more issues we can raise, the more questions we can ask, the more questionable activities we can highlight, the more that people will begin to see the problems and the failures with the crazy process we are stuck with and living through, and the more people we can make aware, the greater the chances that we can eventually start to make more progress in turning things around ...

The political reality is that being an MTC Commissioner is a very valuable political appointment that, generally, is much coveted by elected officials. In particular, the Commissioners control the priority of projects and, most important, the distribution of funds to projects, most of which range from hundreds of thousands to even billions. Even though the vast majority of the money that flows through MTC (and its component units, BATA, SAFE, BAHA, and BAIFA) is pass-throughs to other governmental agencies, they also directly control the approval of many contracts, totaling well into the millions each year.

The simple truth is, elected politico’s that have a role in such decisions tend to attract campaign contributions, as well as other “support,” from various interested parties.

Then, in the time-honored practice of elected officials “bringing home the bacon” – virtually all MTC Commissioners take this very seriously, spending a fair amount of time doing what they can to maximize funding coming to their home jurisdiction. Yes, I am very well aware that no one is elected to be a MTC Commissioners, but, trust me, elected politicos do not cease behaving like elected officials just because they are serving as an appointed member of a public governing board. In fact, if you are appointed to the MTC from a small county of city, your “value” as in influencer of MTC et al contracts and grants can be far more than that of being an elected part-time Mayor of a medium-sized Bay Area city.

Also, there is some money (not much) and travel involved. The MTC enabling statutes (GC66504.1) authorizes $100 per meeting, plus out-of-pocket expenses for up to five meetings per month. Also, as Commissioners, you can get expense-paid trips to Sacramento, DC, and various transit/land use/etc. conferences, which can include some international travel …

For all of these reasons, it is just not very realistic to expect that very many MTC Commissioners will ever be anything other than elected officials.