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2013 Special
Analysis

Strengthening the Bay Area’s regional governance

Prepared by Egon Terplan, SPUR1

Much of what makes Silicon Valley and the overall nine-county Bay Area a great place to live and work is the result of regional decisions. Over half a century ago, leaders in the Bay Area looked to the future and made choices involving tradeoffs and sacrifices.

We protected large areas of open space ringing our communities and limited development along the coast. We saved the Bay from being turned into a narrow shipping channel with urban development spreading onto newly reclaimed land. We built BART to connect people in emerging suburbs to the urban core and saved Caltrain when it was threatened with extinction. Imagine the Bay Area today without dedicated open space ringing the Bay, a BART and Caltrain system that may soon carry half a million riders daily, or with a virtually nonexistent Bay, replaced by subdivisions and office parks.

For many of these regional victories we also established a new governance institution to address these issues in perpetuity. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area manages land in three counties. The Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) manages issues of growth along the Bay shoreline. BART is an agency with an elected board that is responsible for building and maintaining a rail system in four and soon five counties. The Peninsula Joint Powers Board owns and operates Caltrain across three counties.

As we look to the future, there are new and lingering challenges we must address. In fact, some of the biggest threats to the Bay Area’s long-term economic competitiveness are challenges best addressed through stronger or more effective regional governance.

  • Overall job growth is constrained by limited housing production, as many individual jurisdictions do not view housing growth in their self-interest.
  • Highway congestion results because jobs are scattered throughout the region, often far from transit.
  • Tax receipts are highly unequal between neighboring jurisdictions even though residents in one town work in the next.
  • For transit riders, navigating a regional system with 27 individual operators and dozens of different fares is difficult. Transformative infrastructure like high-speed rail is stymied by a myriad of local concerns. Thousands ride private shuttles daily to sites throughout Silicon Valley in part because there is no viable transit alternative.
  • And the growing reality of climate change threatens much of Silicon Valley’s economic health through risks from flooding, rising tides and storm surges. Key pieces of regional infrastructure such as airports and ports are also threatened. New York and New Jersey’s experience with storm surges from Hurricane Sandy demonstrates both the significant economic consequences of such storms as well as the urgency of developing a regional response.

While many of the Bay Area’s 100-plus local cities and nine counties are trying to respond to these important issues, they are not capable of solving them alone. Quite simply, jobs, housing, transit and climate change are regional challenges. By definition, regional issues require regional solutions.

Failing to address these regional problems means risking the Bay Area’s economic standing globally. We face increasing competition. Places like Singapore, Shanghai, Vancouver, and São Paolo are not just cities but city-regions that are acting and working regionally. Within the United States, Portland and Minneapolis have long been held up as models for better regionalism. What can we learn from these places and other metropolitan areas? What are the risks of not working regionally?

This year’s Special Analysis asks and explores the following questions: “What major regional issues could threaten our economic success?” and “How is our current system of governance inadequate to respond to these threats?”

1. Special thanks to Joshua Karlin-Resnick for research and writing support on this report.

Why regions matter

The Bay Area’s fragmented system of governance

What are key regional issues for Silicon Valley as part of the Bay Area region?

Silicon Valley potential inundation zones

A possible future

Conclusion