Our 2021 virtual Regional Leadership Conference was a hit. It was our largest in terms of attendance, with more than 250 people logging in for at least one of our sessions. And our keynote speaker, former US DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx, did not disappoint. But throughout all these sessions, there was a meaningful exploration of the way regions are making California a better place.
For those of you who missed it, or others who want to replay it, we have posted most of the sessions. But here are some of the top takeaways.
- Regions are Unifiers: With a nation highly politically and economically divided, Mr. Foxx noted that in his experience (which included being Mayor of Charlotte, NC), regional transportation agencies like MPOs have a unique role to play in offering a forum to find common ground. “If we ask, ‘What kinds of things could bring us together?’ to me, the MPO system is one of the answers,” Foxx said. “We have these splits of rural and suburban and urban, and we have precious few tables where these where these communities actually decide things together.” Foxx noted that was a power of regional government. “We should be pumping more federal dollars into our MPO system, both to give them to tools necessary – the human resource tools – but also do more of the designing of regional transportation systems.”
- REAPing Benefits. The session “What is REAP Sowing?” explored new innovations in the new housing planning grant program (Regional Early Action Plans), where regional creativity and innovation are on full display. New grant programs for cities and counties that tie housing and climate goals, developing a pre-negotiated “shelf” of expert consultants to provide expertise to local agencies with lower rates and easy procurement, and evening partnering with private foundations on grant programs to leverage public funds further. We were encouraged then, when Assembly Transportation Committee Chair Laura Friedman, discussed the idea of Sustainable Communities Block Grants, to offer a similar approach in accelerate climate strategies in regional transportation planning.
- Data and Measuring Equity: The issue of equitable mobility and infrastructure was a constant theme. Anthony Foxx noted that, with a long history of disenfranchisement, transportation infrastructure bears a special responsibility to knit communities together in a way that benefits low-income rural, suburban and urban places. In pointing out the potential of federal policy to address the issue, MTC’s Therese McMillan followed up: “It’s data, data, data. Part of the challenge, unfortunately, is still proving that inequities exist. And frankly, you need to have the data, and you need to be able to measure progress and have powerful, reliable equity metrics that aren’t just transportation, but are health metrics, housing metrics.” Giving a glimpse of what the future, Nick Bowden, CEO of Replica (a sponsor) showed how “big data” can be harnessed to provide such information.
- Partnerships Key for SB 375: Meeting greenhouse gas targets will continue to be challenging for California – as will lowering VMT as required under SB 743. There was no dispute about that during a panel that included OPR’s Kate Gordon, StanCOG’s Rosa Park and SANDAG’s Hassan Ikhrata. Both Park and Ikhrata said they need more partnership from the state – as recently received under the model REAP program. But Ikhrata noted that the partnership must also include local agencies: “It is absolutely imperative that we do not have the transportation discussion separate from the land use discussion, and that means we need to partner with local governments.” StanCOG’s Park concurred, noting the need to incentivize the planning connection between land use and transportation. “There’s not an MPO in the San Joaquin Valley that doesn’t want to change. What where we’re missing are the resources and the collaboration that will help us do that.” Ms. Gordon acknowledged the importance of these partnerships, but was clear about the challenge: “We can’t just keep doing everything the way we were doing it. We can’t keep leaving behind entire populations and we can’t keep planning in a way that that that makes some people have to drive 90 minutes to get to a job because they can’t afford housing.”
- A Charged Funding Discussion: By 2030, the gas tax will bring in an estimated $1 billion less due to the state’s goals on VMT reductions and the rise in EVs, according to a Mineta Institute study. Simon Horton, from Southern California Edison the effort underway to retool our infrastructure to serve electric vehicles, which was underscored by a report from Kern Council of Governments. Anthony Foxx’s prediction, however, that the country is “not more than one or two transportation bills away from facing something other than a straight gas tax” highlighted the urgency to start thinking about new forms of funding. Should California switch to VMT tax, as Oregon has piloted? But we will still have to work in partnership. “Bad pricing kills good planning,” SANDAG’s Ikhrata said, “We should have that discussion about the next form of taxing, not only to get revenues but to manage congestion.”
- Infrastructure Joe: A well-known advocate of Amtrak, President Biden can be expected to support a major infrastructure package that extends beyond transportation to water and broadband, LA Metro’s Phil Washington said as part of a wide-ranging panel discussion on federal policy. The country has been on “infrastructure vacation” the last few decades, Washington said, meaning the backlog of needs is great – at a time, MTC’s McMillan noted, when governments are reeling from the pandemic and not necessarily in at top capacity to partner. Then there is the question of how the President’s executive order on climate and equity, known as Justice 40, will roll out. It calls for 40% of infrastructure dollars to go to low-income communities. While exciting, panelists said, more detail about implementation will be needed to guide the program: “Is there a list of regionally and nationally significant projects? Is there a sequence? What about delivery? I’m really, really concerned about that, and I’m anxious to hear how that’s going to work out because the devil is going to be in the detail,” Washington said.
- Finally, Resiliency. Another interesting session was a case study examination of how the San Diego Association of Governments is partnering with another public-private-academic regional collaborative focused adapting and mitigating the effects of climate change. This session highlighted the opportunities embedded in new and sometimes less conventional partnerships.
Of course, there was much more to the conference that what we made from here, including a very competitive California and transportation issue trivial contest. For more of the action, visit our Forum webpage were most of the videos are posted. Thank you to all the speakers, participants, and conference sponsors for making it such a success.