Transportation Policy — Part III
My previous articles in this series discussed why elected officials make transportation policy and how they make policy “directly” using the legislative process.
This article will discuss three “indirect” ways that elected officials exert control over transportation policy: (1) Appointment; (2) Budgeting; (3) Oversight.
Elected officials do not directly manage implementing transportation departments like LADOT, Metro, and Caltrans. Rather, they exert influence indirectly through the appointment of a leader — usually called a General Manager (GM) or Director — who they believe will effectively execute their policy preferences.
These department leaders are different from ordinary staff. The majority of department staff at the city, regional, and state level have civil service classifications, which means that as long as they do their job well enough they cannot be fired. Should a staffer’s performance falter significantly, any potential termination would be an internal department process and not one subject to political influence.
But the people who lead these organizations have no such protection from political influence. In fact, the opposite is the case: they are appointed precisely because they are most able to execute the preferred policy preferences of the political officials who appoint them. And they can be removed by an executive decision or a vote if these elected officials believe the department leader is not executing their policy preferences effectively. (This tends not to happen though- usually a leader will be given the opportunity to resign.)
The selection of a department leader is important because these appointed leaders can most directly chart the direction of a department through a day-to-day focus on department priorities, program oversight, staff assignments, budget requests, workplace culture, and just general decision-making within the department about how to get things done.
And it’s important to note that these leadership jobs require more than just a knowledge of transportation- one has to be able to steer a big bureaucracy as well, which is a challenge on its own.
In the city of LA, the Mayor has the power of appointment for the people who lead city departments, including the GM’s of the four transportation-related departments: BOE, StreetsLA, LADOT, and City Planning.
Regional LA and California state-level organizations have similar appointment processes in which candidates for agency leadership positions are appointed by either an executive (for example, the Governor at the state level) or a selection committee (Metro, Metrolink, and SCAG at the regional level). After a candidate is chosen he or she is placed before the full Board or legislative body for a formal vote of approval.
It is worth noting here that there are also commissions made up of appointed citizens who weigh in on transportation policy and programs. The history of the city of LA’s many commissions is fascinating. They were born out of the Progressive era belief that vesting volunteer citizen commissions — who were expected to conduct all business in public meetings — would be less vulnerable to corruption and waste.
Today, these commission bodies have varying levels of authority with respect to shaping specific transportation policies — for instance, in LA the Board of Public Works is a “controlling commission” with considerable authority, while the Board of Transportation Commissioners is an “advisory commission” with much less influence.
In almost all cases, a commission will have the opportunity to shape transportation policy prior to the idea being heard by elected officials, and those elected officials can accept or reject the recommendations of the commission. (At the state level, the CTC is an exception in its independence.)
The power of a commission is without question subordinate to the power exercised by elected officials — commissioners operate within the same political constraints that department leaders often do in terms of staying in alignment with the priorities of the executive or governing body that appointed them.
One often hears in LA that department GM’s have “sixteen bosses” — ie, the Mayor and 15 councilmembers — but it’s actually even more complicated that that due to the presence of the city boards and commissions. To relay the insight of a City Hall veteran:
“The 2000 City Charter revisions moved a lot of power to the Mayor, mostly by allowing him to remove GM’s and commissioners without cause. However, the City Charter still designates commissions as the legal “head” of many departments. This can put a GM in a tough position — the Mayor can fire them, but they are required to follow the direction of the commissioners who are officially their boss. Further complicating things, the City Council can always assert jurisdiction and veto a commission action, thus making the chair of the committee with jurisdiction of that department — and the Council president — de facto bosses for the GM as well.
This veteran would go on to cite an example of this power balance in action: for a certain GM, every major announcement was proceeded by a courtesy call to the Mayor, the Council President, the Councilmember who chaired the committee in charge of the GM’s department, and the President of the department’s Board of Commissioners.
As they say, power in LA is horizontal, and this diffusion of authority between many elected and appointed officials is perfect example of it.
Budgets are where elected officials move beyond words and devote money to getting things done. While transportation departments and official budget staff do most of the work preparing budgets, elected officials guide this process and ultimately approve, amend or even reject them.
Sometimes a policy item is approved and comes complete with a budgetary analysis showing exactly where the money will come from. Other times, the policy might be approved in concept with money to be secured later. In either case, it’s never a given that an approved policy will reach implementation if funding issues derail its progress.
Budget actions occur throughout the year, but many of the big decisions occur in a department’s annual budget process. Three big transportation questions get answered at that time:
(a) How much money will go to transportation vs. other important community needs like public safety, housing, parks, sanitation, etc?
(b) Which projects and programs within transportation will receive increased funding?
(c) Will the projects and programs be implemented through the hiring of additional staff and purchasing of equipment, or by outside contract?
In the city of LA, the budget is year-long process, and you can find current and past budgets here. The transportation advocacy group Investing in Place has a good overview of the city of LA’s budget process here, complete with tips for effectively tracking the budget process throughout the year. Even if money was identified as part of a policy proposal at the time of its legislative approval, it’s vital to verify that that same money actually was called out for that purpose in the annual budget.
At the regional level, Metro releases a draft budget every year in the spring that includes service changes in addition to showing how everything they do will be paid for. Metrolink does the same for its regional train services, as does SCAG for its regional planning and policy work.
At the CA state level, the budget is a year-long process in which the governor proposes a budget that is then negotiated and approved by the state legislature. The CA Department of Finance has a great budget website that gives the breakdown of current and past budgets: click here for the Governor’s proposed 2020–21 budget released in January 2020.
Three things worth noting about budgets:
1) By the time a draft budget is released, much of the cake is already baked. There will always be adjustments to accommodate late-breaking events and specific political asks, but many months of work have gone into preparing the budget, and it isn’t going to change substantially.
2) Budgets are incremental in nature. This means that budget staff start by taking the previous year’s budget as the base and then make incremental changes based on new policy choices and available funds. As a result, budgets generally don’t change significantly within a short time-frame; rather, change accrues over time.
3) Staffing is important (and expensive). Staff allocations reflect transportation priorities, and a lot of budget maneuvering goes into determining appropriate staffing levels for different programs. We often think of transportation budgets as buying stuff (concrete, stoplights, construction equipment), but a considerable amount of money is required for the people who design, manage, and implement a project or program, whether they are at a desk, driving a bus, or directing traffic. People require salaries, but it doesn’t stop there — they also require pensions, healthcare, insurance, space in a building to do work and take a break, electricity and plumbing for the building, and a host of other related costs. These costs can add up.
Transportation budget advocacy is a long game that requires year-around engagement, in most cases for several years. It is an intricate dance between elected officials, department management, budget analysts, and city accountants, with select opportunities for the public to formally weigh in. Everyone wants more- for their constituents, for their department, for their particular civic need. There is no perfect budget that satisfies everyone.
This last category of “indirect” policy-making could be called oversight or management. It might also be termed birddogging.
Birddog (def): search out or pursue with dogged determination
To take a transportation idea on the complete journey from conception to development to final approval to implementation requires a lot of work. Policy ideas that don’t have champions that birddog them from start to finish run the risk of never reaching the finish line.
Elected officials and their staff are often the people in the best position to birddog a project to fruition. This is partly due to the natural power that comes with their control over the three previously mentioned aspects of policy-making: the legislative process, appointment, and budgeting.
But more than that, elected officials occupy a natural coordination point between the many stakeholders involved in transportation policy. This allows them break down silos and facilitate productive exchanges both between different departments working on a policy (either within a city or between city, county, and state) and between a department and the community for projects and programs that require extensive community engagement.
This coordination and oversight role can take different forms. Sometimes the elected officials request regular meetings with city staff to get updates, either privately or publicly at a committee.
Other times the staff of elected officials play a more active role in moving a project forward, and this might involve reviewing drafts, setting up community meetings, problem-solving, and any number of tasks involved with moving a policy forward.
Even if department staff are the ones doing most of the actual work of crafting and implementing policy, elected officials and their staff use their own time, skills, and authority to prioritize particular policy items of significance.
This series of three articles started by explaining why elected officials make transportation policy, and then offered an overview of the ways that elected officials make and execute policy.
Streetsblog LA and Streetsblog CA have coverage of some issues in recent years that offer good real-life examples of the policy-making process in recent years- each topic below includes a link that gives a flavor of how this works:
- At the city of LA level: the debate over how much money to devote to the Vision Zero program.
- At the regional Metro level: the debate over how to re-allocate money cancelled North 710 freeway tunnel.
- At the state level: the debate over whether Caltrans should adopt a Complete Streets policy for the highways it maintains.
All of these debates feature differences of opinion, whether between elected officials, department staff, interest groups, and constituents over what should be done.
Remember — just about every single person in Los Angeles has their own particular set of ideas about what we should do to improve transportation.
As such, transportation becomes a tangled knot of needs, desires, and constraints. Unraveling this knot is part science and part art, and elected officials are the ones who have to make the final decisions.
For more detail on the relationship between elected officials and their communities, you can read this article: Elected Officials and Their Communities.
See an overview of the other things I’ve written, transportation-related and otherwise, at the link here.