Transportation Policy — Part II

Y Diaz

My previous piece discussed why elected officials make transportation policy.

This piece begins to discuss how they make policy.

The way elected officials influence the course of action on transportation matters can be split into two categories: (1) direct and (2) indirect. This not a precise distinction, but rather reflects an attempt to convey a nuanced set of activities in a clear way. The remainder of this article will cover the direct category.

Direct Policy-Making

The “direct way” elected officials make policy is through the legislative process.

In transportation, almost every action undertaken by a department at the city, county, or state level can ultimately be traced back to an idea initiated by elected officials and adopted through the legislative process. Some duties are in a department’s founding charter or mission document, but most are found in policies that were formally approved by an organization’s governing body.

As mentioned previously:

  • In the city of LA, the elected officials who make transportation decisions are the Mayor and the City’s 15 councilmembers.
  • At the regional LA level, the decision-makers are the elected officials that make up the “Governing Board” of each organization: for instance, Metro has its 13-member board, Metrolink has an 11-member board, and SCAG has a huge 86-member board.
  • At the state level, transportation decisions are made by the Governor and the 40 state senators and 80 state assemblymembers that make up the two houses of the State Legislature.

Let’s start at the beginning. If something is perceived to be flawed with our transportation system, then elected officials will often try to find a course of action will remedy the problem using the legislative process.

At the city and state levels, this legislative policy-making is generally done first through a transportation-themed committee. Committees are smaller groups of people within a larger governing body that specialize in particular matters. See a sample LA City Transportation Committee agenda here.

A policy item is put forth for discussion at the transportation committee, and if the committee members vote to approve the item, it is sent on to the full body for official approval. The item becomes official policy once the full body approves the item, and it is not vetoed by the executive (ie, a Mayor or Governor).

For example, in the city of Los Angeles, there are three committees that deal the most with transportation: the Transportation Committee, the Public Works Committee, and the Planning and Land Use Committee. These committees meet 2–4 times a month. Once a matter has been discussed and approved at a particular committee, it then goes to the entire City Council for full approval. After that, the Mayor then approves or vetoes the policy.

This process also occurs at the CA state level: state legislative committees specializing in transportation in both the House and Senate determine policy at the respective transportation-themed sub-committees, and any approved policy is then approved by the full chambers of each house. If successful, the policy item is moved to the Governor for approval or veto. (Here is a more detailed overview of the state legislature process.)

At regional Los Angeles organizations like Metro or Metrolink, where everything they do is about transportation, the policy item would be directed to one of the smaller committees that deal with different aspects of transportation, such as planning, operations, or budget.

Metro and Metrolink have sub-committees that meet once a month and a full Board meeting at the end of every month. SCAG has one day each month that consists of committee meetings in the morning and a full Regional Council meeting in the afternoon. Policy-making meetings vary for the LA COGs, with more formal and well-funded COGs like the South Bay COG adhering to the a structure of monthly committees followed by a full board meeting.

A Metro Board Meeting

Now, what role do implementing transportation departments play in this policy process? Let’s look at the following sequence that spotlights a typical five-step sequence one might observe at the city of LA:

  1. An elected official talks with the community and comes up with an idea for a transportation policy. The elected official works with staff to write up a short 1–2 page outline of the idea and submits it to the larger body of elected officials.
  2. This idea is sent to a transportation-themed committee, and the chair puts it on the agenda for a particular meeting. If the elected official’s colleagues on the transportation committee agree that the idea is worthy of further study, then the item goes to the full governing body for approval- in this case the City Council.
  3. If approved, the idea is then delegated to a department for follow-up. The department now has authority to devote time and resources to studying the idea to determine its merit, costs, challenges, timeline, etc. This effort is usually captured in a summary report with recommendations on how to proceed pursuing the idea.
  4. Once the report is complete, the department comes back and presents to the committee. The committee can approve the report and its recommendations. It can also can amend, reject, or continue the item for re-consideration at a later date if there is no consensus that the policy item is ready to move ahead.
  5. If the committee and then later the full City Council and the Mayor’s Office deem the report and the underlying idea worthy of action and approve it, then the department can move forward with implementation of the idea. With some help from city clerical and legal staff, the transportation idea becomes official transportation policy a few days after the final votes are tallied.

With respect to LA, it’s worth noting that there can be understandable confusion about the different policy-making done by the Mayor, the Council, and the many city commissions made up of citizens appointed by the mayor.

The Mayor makes policy primarily through executive directives, which usually relate to big-picture policy items that involve coordinating the activities of multiple departments.

The Council makes policy through the adoption of ordinances that either establish the processes and procedures a city department must follow (the Administrative Code) or exercise the city’s police powers and establish laws that the public must follow (the Municipal Code).

Any policy area that the Council has not specifically weighed in on is left to the city boards and commissions to establish. If there is a conflict between the Council and a board or commission, then the Council ordinance takes precedence.

For example, in past years the Board of Public Works had adopted a policy that required the name of the contractor who built a sidewalk to be stamped in the cement. However, the City Council later adopted an ordinance banning advertising in the public right of way. The Council ordinance takes precedence over the Board’s policy.

In truth, there are many different paths that policy items can take towards approval. The goal here is merely to give a flavor of that process. Elected officials are vested with the power to make policy, and the legislative process is perhaps the most direct expression of that authority.

But this is far from the only way elected officials exert influence over transportation policy.

This brings us to the next article: indirect policy-making.

See an overview of the other things I’ve written, transportation-related and otherwise, at the link here.




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Nathan S. Holmes

Nathan S. Holmes

Live in Los Angeles.

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