Regional questions

Regionalism is being touted as a reason to reform local government. But why should we trust regional interests any more than local ones?

by Carolyn Chase

f regionalism is the answer, what's the question? And who's asking it?

    Regionalism might be an answer to many different questions and we should be very concerned about that. Regionalism is translated into proposals for governmental reform at the local and state levels.

    In general, the question that regionalism legitimately seeks to answer can, in most circles, be first thought of as: How can our region grow smarter?

    But, just as many people might say that they want regionalism be pushing more freeways through faster. Evidence does not prove that this fits any definition for “smart growth” though regionalists consistently argue that construction of freeways should trump local concerns. Eminent Domain was created as a tool of regionalism. Why it is or is not applied is a political determination.

    The question that must be answered is: Which weighs more heavily in favor of regionalism: a new freeway or environmental protection, property rights and preservation of quality of life?

    Looked at through yet another lens, the question the region needs to answer is: How do we pursue increased rates of population growth and survive with any quality of life?

    And what about the question regardless of growth pressures of how we propose to fund the multi-billion dollar infrastructure deficit, with the city of San Diego alone admitting to $2.5 billion.

    What I wonder is, why would regionalism be an answer to any of these pressing issues? Why would regionalism allow us pursue growth and improve or at least reduce the rate of decline in our quality of life? How could regionalism really accomplish that?

    The “canned answer” is that regionalism will allow the “regional governance mechanism” to overcome parochial interests that are claimed to be blocking regional progress.

    Let's take a look at a couple of examples.

    One of the biggest efforts that is rightfully considered regional is, of course, an international airport. All manner of dire consequences are predicted if we don't build one somewhere.

    But what region is it for? Is it for the Orange County/San Diego County region? Or is it for the Tijuana/San Diego County region? A region, like any city, is only an arbitrary political definition; regions are pure political animals, as they are currently defined.

    But the latest SANDAG “non-report” on the airport states the following, which I hear little discussed, on the impacts of not building a new airport:

    “The scale of population reduction, compared with the region's 2030 population with all demand for air transportation accommodated, would range from 38,000 to 80,000 fewer persons and between about 15,000 to 32,000 fewer households.... Personal income per capita would decline by [between] $21 to $58....”

    Two points:

    First, in an area already facing a housing crisis, an energy crisis, challenged water and sewage systems, overcrowded schools etc., isn't a reduction in population of that size a good?

    As for that decline in personal income per capita big whoop. I bet I could raise between $21 to $58 from at least two-thirds of local residents to not foist the negative impacts into their region.

    Most importantly, there is little evidence that the way economic growth is pursued in our region ever makes up for that which is left behind: the existing multi-billion-dollar infrastructure backlog and a degraded environment under constant pressure.

    Boosters want to lure residents and environmentalists to the table to support a new airport under the premise that new growth will really make up for the deficits and backlogs that, somehow, the last round of growth never quite covered.

    As the saying goes, “that dog won't hunt” in the information age, where many residents remember past broken growth promises and are becoming more and more highly networked together.

    The TransNet half-cent sales tax increase was supposed to deal with congestion. Look how well that worked out.

    Let's look at another example. The infamous state Route 680 was removed by Encinitas, acting on its own. Boosters of regionalism still search for ways to overcome local opposition to putting a freeway through the North County coastal area, between interstates 5 and 15. There is no question that there would be less traffic on those routes if SR-680 had been built. But how clear is it that this would have been the best choice for the region?

    If you look at it from the perspective of real estate values, as well as open space and environmental values, you could likely measure that the property tax values are higher now than they would have been if the freeway had divided it in the pursuit of the so-called “regional good.” Would the probable regional solution really improve the region's quality of life or merely spread around the winners and losers differently?

    Why and under what conditions should the “regional interest” trump the local interest? Why shouldn't those facing the losing end of any political deal be able to defend themselves against the negative impacts?

    I would propose that a regionalism that doesn't actually deal with localized impacts is merely another “ism” with which the powerful forces of the political world attempt to gain advantage over the citizens and general taxpaying public interest. This also extrudes out into environmental degradation.

    While current regional government (SANDAG) has flaws and warts galore and while we need and can hope for something better we need to stay terribly concerned that regionalism doesn't allow for something worse.

    Why would a regional government provide something better? How could it? Aren't the mechanisms considered for regional government mainly being thought of as a way to push through what the usual economic development interests want regardless of the negative impacts? Why would regional government be any better?

    If you can convince me that regionalism can deal with the impacts, and can be a way to change the way business is done so that growth at a minimum does not degrade the quality of life, then let's talk about that kind of regionalism.

    Unfortunately, initial attempts to invent regionalism have focused on squabbling, not issues.

    Carolyn Chase is editor of the San Diego Earth Times and chair of the Mayor's Environmental Advisory Board. E-mail her at