A couple weeks ago, the Burbank Leader reported that Burbank is considering joining its neighboring cities in the Arroyo Verdugo subregion to create a new council of governments (COG) in response to the funding opportunities from Measure M. Almost $9 billion (in 2015 dollars) is allocated for subregional programs with purposes ranging from freeway interchange improvements to first and last mile access to transit. These programs were created in response to priorities identified by each of Los Angeles County’s nine subregions in the Mobility Matrices–a process driven in large part by the COGs. With Measure M, COGs have the potential to become even more influential players in transportation planning in Los Angeles County. Yet, how COGs operate and the decisions they make often fly below the radar, so we were pleased to see the media pick up on a topic that is usually only covered by wonky policy briefs like our 2015 COG Memo.
The Leader story touched on the ongoing debate happening as part of the development of the Measure M Guidelines: What role will COGs have in the implementation of Measure M’s subregional programs, and what accountability measures are needed to ensure that these programs deliver on key priorities? We explored this issue in our April analysis of the draft guidelines, but much more work is needed to arrive at consensus among the many stakeholders. Our hope is that the new Policy Advisory Council (PAC) can tackle this issue head on.
Back in March 2016, we called the subregional programs “a tremendous opportunity for cities to work collaboratively with the flexibility to respond to future needs.” We still hold this optimistic view about the potential of these programs to be sources of policy innovation, including using data-driven performance measures and funding nontraditional projects and programs. Whether the subregional programs live up to their potential will largely be determined by the Measure M Guidelines and the partnerships established among regional, subregional, and local groups. In a region as vast as Los Angeles County, subregional planning and implementation processes are critical in order to create robust, effective, safe, and context-sensitive transportation options that seamlessly cross jurisdictional lines.
In our analysis last month, we noted that the draft guidelines do not clearly define a role for the COGs in the subregional programs, leaving project selection and prioritization processes uncertain with no clear decision-maker or evaluation criteria. As with other parts of the guidelines, there are competing interests that need to be balanced to make the subregional programs work effectively. On the one hand, the COGs want autonomy over the subregional funding, while on the other hand Metro is ultimately responsible for delivering on Measure M’s promises to voters. Unfortunately, the draft guidelines sidestepped how these programs will be administered and failed to propose a workable process for deciding which projects and programs will get funded by each subregional program–addressing neither HOW projects will be evaluated for funding nor WHO will make that evaluation. Given the scale of these programs–over $200 million per year–establishing clarity and transparency is essential. Who will administer these programs? Metro? The COGs? A combination of both?
This decision is too important to rush. While we don’t want to see the master guidelines held up, we believe it is appropriate to include a year-long guidelines development period for the subregional programs, just like there is for many other Measure M programs addressed in the master guidelines. It will take a year for significant revenues to accumulate in the subregional programs anyway, so this discussion period will not meaningfully delay projects on the ground. However, the extra year will give the PAC time to dive into these complex issues and hopefully come to consensus on how to move forward.
In the absence of a clear proposal in the guidelines, we’d like to introduce a framework to start this discussion. These are some of the considerations that we think should addressed in more detailed subregional program guidelines:
Transparency and Accountability – Each program should have clear goals and objectives, eligibility criteria, and project selection processes. A publicly available program matrix should be maintained that includes each project’s scope, schedule, funding amount and source for each phase, documentation of community engagement, and contact information for the project manager. The program administrator should also be required to issue annual reports on the overall program’s budget, effectiveness, including project delivery and achievement of program objectives.
Collaborative Decision-Making – It is appropriate for the COGs to have a role in selecting projects and programs for funding, but their authority should not be absolute. COGs have a responsibility to engage local stakeholders (see public participation and capacity and standards) and proposed project lists should be submitted regularly for approval by the Metro board. These project lists should be justified by an evaluation of each project’s merits, consistent with program objectives. There should also be an appeals process for local jurisdictions whose projects are not selected for funding.
Public Participation – As we mentioned above, COGs have traditionally flown below the radar with stakeholders, many of whom are not familiar with their local COG or how to engage effectively with them. COGs’ committees often meet at times that are not convenient for community members, and decision-making processes are generally not clear or welcoming. While some COGs work well with outside stakeholders, this is not consistent across the county and something we can not afford to overlook given the magnitude of this funding. With potential increased authority from Measure M programs, comes an increased responsibility for COGs to seek greater public participation in decision-making and transparency in their operations. Each program should be required to create a public participation plan that includes effective strategies for engaging community members, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color. COGs should identify community-based organizations that serve these populations and collaborate with them to develop their community engagement plan on these programs and decisions.
Performance Measures – Measure M projects were all evaluated according to consistency with five overarching objectives: Mobility, Economic Benefit, Accessibility, Safety, and Sustainability and Quality of Life. Similarly, the subregional programs should also be required to demonstrate consistency with these countywide objectives. Investing in Place encourages program administrators to go beyond these basic objectives to define more specific, measureable outcomes for each subregional program and collect sufficient data to evaluate the effectiveness of the investments.
Innovative Project Development – Many cities already have project ideas in mind for funding from the subregional programs–and many of these are in fact good projects. But transportation planners also have a responsibility to evaluate overall system performance and proactively develop projects that address critical needs, such as traffic safety and network connectivity. Most local jurisdictions don’t have the capacity to take on cross-jurisdictional projects or the expertise needed to explore more innovative solutions. The transportation industry has changed rapidly in just the past few years and will continue to do so: shared mobility services and new technology have the potential to upend traditional capital projects, while community-based projects like pedestrian plazas and protected bike lanes are increasingly demanded by stakeholders to address safety and economic development objectives. COGs can and should collect the data needed to identify transportation challenges and work with their member cities, regional agencies, and local stakeholders to develop innovative and multimodal solutions.
Capacity and Standards – Each of the county’s nine subregions is administered differently. Some have COGs and some don’t. Some COGs are well-established in terms of staff capacity and technical expertise and others have just a part-time staff. Engagement with external stakeholders also varies widely across the subregions. Without some standardization on how COGs operate, such as record keeping, budget transparency, and public participation, it is difficult to imagine COGs being effective administrators for Measure M programs. Program administration–not to mention data collection, subregional planning, and project development–requires resources and it is reasonable for these costs to be borne by the associated Measure M program. However, in order to be eligible for funding for administration, COGs should be required to enter into an MOU with Metro addressing all of the considerations outlined above.
Next Steps: The next Policy Advisory Council meeting is today, May 2nd, and after that June 6th, and will be focused on providing input on the draft guidelines from the PAC’s diverse stakeholder groups, that includes COGs, service providers, and consumer groups. (PAC meetings are held monthly and open to the public.) The PAC is expected to meet again in early June before the draft guidelines go to the Metro board for adoption. To sign up to receive PAC agendas and meeting notifications, please email Metro staff member Vivian Rescalvo.
And save the date for our next COG Forum on October 31st.
To see a list of COG multiyear subregional programs – see pages 10-11.