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PD Editorial: Ready for regional government?

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Housing, its availability and affordability, is at or the near the top of the public agenda throughout the nine-county Bay Area.

So, too, are roads and transit.

Despite the region’s robust economic growth since the Great Recession, or perhaps because of that growth, the increasingly high cost and tight supply of housing is making it difficult for many families to make ends meet or even to live near their places of employment. And frustration with commute-hour congestion is often accompanied by the fury that is producing threats of a property tax strike in rural Sonoma County unless deteriorating roads are repaired.

Is surrendering local control the solution?

That might be the easiest answer, but we aren’t convinced it’s the best one, or even that it’s equitable, much less politically viable.

Indeed, regional government has been considered and rejected before. However, it may get a new look after being put forward again in “A Roadmap for Economic Resilience,” a report prepared by the Bay Area Council, an influential organization representing some of the region’s most prestigious employers, a list including Apple, Intel, Kaiser and Oracle.

“For all its strengths, the Bay Area lacks any cohesive and comprehensive regional economic strategy for sustaining economic growth, weathering business cycles and supporting shared prosperity across the region,” the report says. “Given the regional nature of the economy, its labor pool, housing sheds, job centers and commute flows, viable solutions must reflect a regional perspective.”

That, the Bay Area Council report said, could include punishing cities that fail to meet housing targets set by regional planners. The report also suggests a cap on development impact fees (which, in theory, are supposed to offset costs of schools, parks and other infrastructure to serve new development), waiving environmental reviews for housing projects and taking away local discretion over plans that are consistent with local zoning and building codes.

To upgrade the transportation network, the report recommends allowing a regional agency to impose bridge tolls, sales taxes, fuel taxes and/or a vehicle registration fee.

The Bay Area already has two large regional government agencies — the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments — though neither has the kind of teeth that the report envisions.

And while major regional efforts, such as Plan Bay Area, usually respect local priorities, larger cities and counties tend to have greater influence on the governing boards. That’s a reason for concern in North Bay counties should there be a serious effort to give these agencies greater authority.

In its report, the Bay Area Council points at regional governing schemes in Portland, Ore., where commissioners are elected, and the Twin Cities, where they are appointed by Minnesota’s governor. However, it isn’t clear that residents of Sonoma and other smaller counties would have any more influence under either of these approaches.

It is undeniably true that housing and transportation are regional concerns and that solutions have proven elusive, but it won’t be easy to persuade people that their interests would be better served by a board of super-supervisors further removed from its constituents.

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