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In Patchwork Of Transportation Agencies, What Makes SANDAG Unique?

The SANDAG logo is seen surrounded by the logos of other transportation plann...

Above: The SANDAG logo is seen surrounded by the logos of other transportation planning organizations in California.

In Patchwork Of Transportation Agencies, What Makes SANDAG Unique?


Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS News

The San Diego Association of Governments is the target of a reform bill in Sacramento. Critics say the transportation planning agency is opaque and undemocratic — but how does it compare to similar agencies across California?

A bill in Sacramento that would make big changes to San Diego's transportation agencies is moving forward in the Senate. AB 805, authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, aims to make the San Diego Association of Governments more transparent and accountable by creating an internal performance auditor and giving more decision-making power to the county's big population centers.

Critics say the complex voting structure at the SANDAG board of directors allows officials representing a minority of county residents to effectively veto decisions that would benefit the majority. The city councils of San Diego and Chula Vista — the cities that stand to gain the most from AB 805 — have voted to support the legislation, as has the board of the Metropolitan Transit System, which operates public transit in most of the county. The bill would give MTS new authority to ask voters for a tax increase to fund transportation improvements.

The SANDAG board of directors has voted to oppose AB 805. A group of smaller cities in the county are also opposing it, arguing that the current system fosters collaboration and consensus across a county with diverse transportation needs. The bill will be heard this week at the Senate Transportation Committee.

Transportation planning in California is mostly left to a patchwork of regional agencies, each with its own set of responsibilities, authorities and rules of governance. Some characteristics of SANDAG are unique, while others are fairly common among other transportation planning agencies.

To help contextualize the reforms in AB 805 — which applies only to San Diego County — KPBS has compiled a list comparing SANDAG's authority and governing structure to similar agencies across the state.


What is it: In terms of its state and federal responsibilities, the San Diego Association of Governments is one of the most powerful countywide agencies in California. Chief among its legal designations is that of a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). This means it is responsible for long-term regional transportation planning, and for working toward the state's greenhouse gas reduction goals. SANDAG also oversees aspects of congestion management, housing, waste management, criminal justice, public health, census data and the intergovernmental review of projects.
Who governs it: SANDAG is governed by a 21-member board of directors, made up of mayors, city council members and county supervisors. SANDAG's board is somewhat unique in that every city in the county is guaranteed at least one seat. The city and county of San Diego each has two seats.
Can it ask voters for tax increases: Yes. San Diego County voters approved an extension of SANDAG's Transnet sales tax in 2004. Another SANDAG tax measure failed last year.


What is it: The Southern California Association of Governments, like SANDAG, is an MPO in charge of long-term transportation planning and greenhouse gas reductions. It covers a much greater portion of land than SANDAG — Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial Counties — and has less consolidated authority. It is the nation's largest MPO, covering 191 cities and more than 18 million residents.
Who governs it: Because SCAG is in charge of so much land and so many people, its governance is more complex and less centralized than SANDAG. Its 86-member Regional Council, like the SANDAG board, is made up of mayors, city council members and county supervisors, and has the authority to implement policy decisions. SCAG also has a much larger General Assembly, which meets only about once a year.
Can it ask voters for tax increases: No.


What is it: The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority — commonly known as Metro — is not an MPO as defined by state and federal law, but is in charge of regional transportation planning and congestion management. Metro is similar to SANDAG in that it covers only one county, which allows it to be more intimately involved in transportation planning and funding than the much larger SCAG. Metro also plans and operates LA county's biggest mass transit system, meaning it has the authority to set bus and train routes, frequencies and fares.
Who governs it: Los Angeles County has more than three times the population of San Diego County — but with just 13 voting members, the Metro board is much smaller and more centralized than the board of SANDAG. The mayor of Los Angeles is guaranteed a seat, and has the power to appoint three more members. Each of the five LA county supervisors also gets a seat.
Can it ask voters for tax increases: Yes. LA County voters approved sales tax measures proposed by Metro in 2008 and 2016.


What is it: The Orange County Transportation Authority is similar to Metro in LA in that it covers only one county, operates public transit and is not an MPO but still has transportation planning authority.
Who governs it: The OCTA board of directors has 17 voting members. Five seats are reserved for the county supervisors. Each supervisorial district also has two seats for mayors or city council members from that district, selected by a committee of the mayors of Orange County's 34 cities. Two of the seats are reserved for "public members" who do not hold elected office and are appointed by the rest of the board members.
Can it ask voters for tax increases: Yes. Orange County voters extended an OCTA sales tax measure proposed in 2006.


What is it: The Metropolitan Transportation Commission covers the nine-county Bay Area and is an MPO, meaning it plans long-term transportation growth and greenhouse gas reductions. It is focused exclusively on transportation and, unlike SANDAG, does not deal with housing, criminal justice or public health. It also oversees the Bay Area's toll bridges.
Who governs it: The MTC is governed by 18 voting commissioners. This is fewer seats than the SANDAG board, even though MTC covers a population more than twice the size of San Diego County. Most of the commissioners are appointed by the boards of supervisors of the nine MTC counties, or the mayors of the counties' largest cities.
Can it ask voters for tax increases: Sort of — MTC has the authority to ask voters for a gas tax increase, although it has never sought to do so. It can also ask voters to increase bridge tolls.


What is it: Bay Area Rapid Transit is the planner and operator of the San Francisco Bay Area's main commuter rail system. Although it technically has less responsibilities than MTC, BART is more visible and has a more direct relationship with Bay Area residents. Unlike all the other agencies mentioned here, BART does not have any direct authority over planning regional transportation, other than the system it operates.
Who governs it: BART's board of directors is unique in that its members are elected directly by the voters and do not concurrently serve as mayors, city council members or county supervisors. The nine BART districts have roughly the same population and cover all of San Francisco, Contra Costa and Alameda Counties, but do not follow city or county lines.
Can it ask voters for tax increases: Yes. In 2004 and 2016, voters in BART's three counties approved property tax increases to fund improvements to the system.

The San Diego Association of Governments is the target of a reform bill in Sacramento. Critics say the transportation planning agency is opaque and undemocratic — but how does it compare to similar agencies across California?


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Andrew Bowen
Metro Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover local government — a broad beat that includes housing, homelessness and infrastructure. I'm especially interested in the intersections of land use, transportation and climate change.

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