State legislation that would lead to the creation of a planning and transportation "super agency" in San Diego County is moving forward. Capitol insiders and a number of officials in the San Diego region expect bills that address San Diego regional governance to pass in some form before the Legislature concludes on August 31.
In fact, there appears to be consensus that San Diego County needs a new, multi-functional entity to coordinate land use and transportation planning better. The sticky issue is one of governance — namely, who will be in charge of the new agency.
Bills by Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego) and Sen. Steve Peace (D-El Cajon) call for an appointed governing board similar to the existing San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) board, on which all 18 cities and the county have equal representation. However, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and some policy analysts question whether an agency with the extraordinary powers that are proposed should be run by appointed representatives. The county has produced a counter-proposal to create a new transportation agency with a seven-member, directly elected board.
As of late June, both Kehoe's AB 2095 and Peace's SB 1703 remained alive in the Legislature. The bills would create the "San Diego Regional Authority." The bills are not identical but are similar, and SANDAG is sponsoring both measures.
"We're trying to consolidate the decision-making process so that the people who are making the land use decisions are also the people making the transportation decisions," said Gary Gallegos, SANDAG executive director.
One of the key provisions — and a source of some controversy — would be the Regional Authority's ability to override a city or county decision that impacts a "regionally significant transportation project."
Peace, who is in his final year in the Legislature, has made regional governance one of his top priorities. And Kehoe, a former San Diego city councilwoman, is a believer.
"Along with revenue-sharing and managed growth planning," Kehoe said, "regional governance is one more tool towards trying to stretch our dollars more efficiently, and to respond to housing, transportation and development needs."
"The bill is still a work in progress," Kehoe added. "I think something will get through. I don't know what it is yet."
The regional government debate has been ongoing in San Diego County since Peace three years ago proposed merging five existing entities, including two transportation boards and the port district, into one super agency. He eventually settled for creation of the San Diego Regional Government Efficiency Commission (known as Regis). Last year, that commission recommended creation of an entity similar to the proposed Regional Authority. The commission also led to creation of a new entity to run all airports in the county and to plan for a large new airport (see CP&DR, August 2001, October 2001).
Officials at SANDAG have been part of the regional debate since its outset and have proposed a five-prong approach, Gallegos explained.
• Create permanency. SANDAG is a joint powers authority whose members can come and go. State legislation would mandate a permanent entity, recognizing that metropolitan San Diego is really one place.
• Develop a regional plan. SANDAG is already working on a plan that meshes local general plans. A state law would ensure a plan that considers regional needs gets done, Gallegos said.
• Assume authority and responsibility for regionally significant transportation projects. This means a two-thirds vote of the Regional Authority board could decide the location of freeways, arterial streets and transit lines, no matter what the local jurisdiction says.
• Address the border zone. The state should require a comprehensive plan for San Diego and Imperial counties for the stretch of land just north of the border with Mexico, Gallegos said.
• Consolidate SANDAG's regional planning responsibilities with the ability to plan and deliver transit projects. Now, the Metropolitan Transit Development Board (MTDB) and the North San Diego County Transit Development Board (NCTD) handle transportation planning and operate transit systems. The Regional Authority would take over transit planning and project delivery.
Gallegos said SANDAG officials wanted to gain agreement on the five above points before addressing who would run the Regional Authority so that the first — and potentially last — argument would not be about governance. The SANDAG proposal gives every city and the county one representative with the exception of the City of San Diego, which would have two representatives. Board actions would need to receive a majority of board votes, as well as a majority of votes weighted approximately by population, with no city having more than 40% of the weighted vote.
The county Board of Supervisors has objected to the governance proposal, saying that an agency with the Regional Authority's proposed powers should be directly accountable to voters. A state Senate committee analysis of AB 2095 agreed that duties such as "connecting land use and transportation choices, or overriding local agencies' decision require the representative democracy."
The Kehoe bill does require voters to approve creation of the Regional Authority. But, Kehoe said, there is no need for directly electing the board at this point because the entity would have no taxing authority.
The county also objects to the proposal to fold the border development zone into this agency, said Jonathan Clay, a lobbyist for the county. And, he said, there is a need to clarify the Regional Authority's environmental planning role because SANDAG now assists cities with habitat plans and related matters.
Leaders of the county's smaller cities have expressed concern about creation of the Regional Authority. The biggest worry is the potential to lose local control, said Christy Guerin, mayor of Encinitas. But Guerin said she is consigned to the likelihood that state lawmakers will approve something this year, so the city needs to work on shaping how the entity will look.
Guerin said she concurs with Regional Authority proponents about the county's need for more cohesive transportation planning. And, like many officials in north San Diego County, she complained that the south county cities of San Diego and Chula Vista get more than their share of transportation improvements.
"A part of me really looks forward to shaking up things at NCTD and MTDB," Guerin said.
A less ambitious regional planning proposal regarding the San Francisco Bay Area also is making its way through the Legislature. The bill, SB 1243 (Torlakson), would merge the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission into the Bay Area Land Use and Transportation Commission. The new entity would be responsible for preparing a long-range policy plan every five years. The bill is opposed by ABAG and a number of local government officials in the Bay Area, although amendments that make the bill more palatable could be introduced before the end of the session.
Gary Gallegos, San Diego Association of Governments, (619) 595-5332.
Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe, (916) 319-2076.
Christy Guerin, Encinitas mayor, (760) 633-2620.
Jonathan Clay, San Diego County lobbyist, (916) 441-0202.