Process over performance

by Carolyn Chase


There's no way around it - traffic that is. Our transportation system is uncompetitive. And SANDAG seems ill-disposed to do much about it. That is because their approach is fundamentally uncompetitive, and I don't even think most of them realize it.

The proposal before the SANDAG Board last week to consider a 30-year extension of the 1/2 cent "TransNet" sales tax was met with rousing defeat. As one pundit put it, yet again, "SANDAG opted for process over performance."

A major point of contention was what some in this region seem to think of as sacred: the 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 split of the TransNet funds (1/3 for highways, 1/3 for local streets and roads and 1/3 for transit).

There is no better example of an anti-competitive process than this political split of dollars that the SANDAG Board is devoted to. This politically-negotiated approach to doling out funding has ramifications that keep us stuck in traffic.

Because the money is conveniently split up-front by category, the SANDAG Board is spared the complications of difficult decisions between competing choices.

Projects in all categories currently are not effectively tracked to determine whether they deliver the promised performance. This leads to a system virtually without any taxpayer accountability.

Nothing has yet compelled them to link the funding with performance. They mainly attempt to pour as much money as possible into each category while pretending that congestion will improve. Have we not noticed that it hasn't? Most projects - both roads and transit - come back to the well again and again for multi-million dollar infusions. Billions of dollars have been poured into projects that haven't come close to delivering promised reductions in traffic congestion. SANDAG declines to go back and compare whether what they promised for each project actually delivered as promised.

The current plan calls for more of the same and much worse.

When will we all wake up to the fact that, even if we built every single project in the plan including every road that is in there now or that was ever in the plan, we would still be up to our wazoos in traffic?? The RTP (Regional Transportation Plan) solution to congestion is to redefine it so it magically disappears. But the real congestion - that you and I experience - the RTP does little about and will do little about.

The TransNet extension attempted to broach the wall of political convenience and begin to link dollars with performance. Most would have none of it. What was described by fear-mongers as a "raid" was really an important attempt to introduce at least some performance-based competition into the process.

The new formula would have reduced the pre-determined splits to 1/4,1/4,1/4, with the remaining 1/4 for projects which would compete for dollars on "smart growth" criteria and other performance measures. The proposal was dogged by an impossible timeline. But the idea to create incentives to begin to match transportation with land use decisions is sound.

Without enough money to go around for everything that everyone wants, and with competition restricted by design and no meaningful feedback measures, there is no way the process can actually solve our regional transportation problems. The one thing absolutely everyone agreed with was that there's not enough money to go around for anything to work very well. As one player put it, "There's not enough pork for the pig we want to eat!" This makes it even the more imperative to introduce fair performance-based competition measures as much as possible for the funding allocation process.

Our transportation system is ill-equipped to be competitive because the processes that produce it aren't competitive.

I had advocated to open the system up entirely to competition based on fair performance feedback measures. As you can imagine, that was a complete non-starter for all the agencies involved. It's never pleasant to stare over the brink of competition when you're used to being fed billions and without performance measures.

Most of them probably don't even believe competitiveness should be a factor in their decisions. After all, democracy is a different standard, right? Businesses compete for resources. Politicians compete for votes. Once elected, politicians like to do whatever they can to protect themselves from competition. No one really likes to compete, now do they? But fundamentally, globalization requires it. The key is how to do it without disenfranchising groups and threatening our quality of life. Traffic is just one such threat to quality of life. Other environmental threats are: polluted water, closed beaches, unchecked growth, declining natural resources.

The failed TransNet extension also sought to deal with these other critical quality of life issues.

It is absolutely in San Diego's short - and long-term interest - to invest in conservation and transportation infrastructure. A major problem stopping or slowing many projects is the lack of funding to deal with the growth-inducing damages that are currently dumped into the environment. Maybe we should consider that, if the land and water impacts were fully funded - as they should have been in the original TransNet but were not - then perhaps many project battles could be resolved faster, or not even fought at all.

There are many problems that money can't solve. But open space is not one of them. We can buy the land and it's saved forever.

Mayor Golding and other supporters were on the right track. Everyone should keep working until the proposal really deserves a 2/3 vote by taxpayers. This should include the introduction of thoughtful competition, feedback and performance measures.