Monday, June 13, 2022

Whether to Create a Citizen Advisory Committee: At the MPO

The technical committee for our Metropolitan Planning Organization meets Tuesday the 14th, and they will consider rising costs with messed up supply chains and inflation as well as whether to revive a Citizen Advisory Committee.

Would a new committee be helpful?

From here a Citizen Advisory Committee is not obviously helpful. It could be helpful, but it's not obvious that one would be. Advisory Committees are not often very powerful and are set up more as a procedural fig leaf.

Though the context is slightly different, for a city rather than for an MPO, you might have seen recent discussion in Portland about their transportation advisory committees. Here's BikePortland:

There are three main bodies that meet every month to advise and inform PBOT policies and projects. They are the freight, pedestrian and bicycle advisory committees. While they’re set up with a PBOT staff liaison and are ostensibly able to influence decisions on a level playing field, that isn’t always the case. There has been a growing number of concerns from some committee members that they are not respected or listened to enough. And the freight committee in particular has a major unfair advantage when it comes to the ability to influence staff.

In regard to this current discussion here, in a memo to the committee SKATS staff says

SKATS last had an active CAC in place from 1995 to 1998 with a major update of the SKATS’ long-range plan, and a Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC) in the mid-1990s. These committees disbanded when it became difficult to find members willing to serve and attend consistently....

Currently, the outreach techniques used by SKATS (e.g., online surveys, email campaigns, brochure mailings, online interactive maps, online open houses, Facebook postings, etc.) have been very good at soliciting project specific comments and general input from the public directly with hundreds of responses to these efforts. An essential question for the Policy Committee to consider is: what additional input and feedback from a CAC does the PC want to capture and incorporate into their decision making that isn’t being met with the current outreach techniques? In other words, would a CAC be valuable in ways that aren’t being met? Would having a CAC be useful to solicit more substantive and detailed feedback regarding transportation priorities or policies?

One aspect that is not covered in the memo is why it was difficult to find members willing to serve. 

One reason it might have been difficult is that the members realized that sitting on an advisory committee was mainly ornamental and nugatory.

In this memo from SKATS staff, there does not seem to be much interest in moving beyond that. The potential level of information and influence is framed as soliciting "additional input and feedback...that isn't being met with the current outreach...." There is nothing about actually making any decisions or directly contributing to decisions.

Any committee could be stacked, also. What if a CAC were full of third bridge partisans? Or, more positively here, were full of advocates for walking, biking, and busing? And the current approach to "balance" is a false centrism that tends to preserve the status quo.

Staff also say

[G]iven the complexity of the role of the MPO with regards to federal regulations and requirements, there would be a steep learning curve to become familiar with the MPO as a whole and the TIP and MTP requirements specifically. CAC members initially may have ideas or feedback that may not be applicable to the MPO, until they are well versed in the process. Having a CAC would take additional MPO staff time for recruitment, training, meeting agenda development, and CAC meetings.

That could very well be true, but asking a CAC to drill into technical details with some expertise like that might be a misuse of a committee. 

Somehow what is missing is more general values - like back to the Goal 7 discussion. A committee could say, "you need to think about climate and reducing driving more" rather than attempt to say "this particular project does not fit the requirements of CMAQ funding very well."

Given the way the MPO currently operates, a CAC may not be very helpful. So it will be interesting to see if the technical and policy committee members are able to shape the discussion in more constructive directions and chart a path to a useful kind of committee that is not mainly symbolic.

From here it has seemed that the generational shift in progress on the Policy Committee, with several new members in the last two years, has been very positive and should be supported. That itself might be enough.

Cost escalation a problem right now

Also on the agenda is trouble with cost escalation.

They are also talking about how to prioritize projects in the next round of funding given the escalation. 

There will be more to say later this month on cost escalation, prioritizing, and citizen advice when these topics hit the Policy Committee with the TAC's recommendations and thoughts.

Finally, there's a discussion of 2050 population forecasts, and it omits any discussion of previous forecasts, their accuracy, and any margin of error.

Just ridiculous precision for three decades out

Since these forecasts are presented to the technical committee, whose members might be conversant with margin of error, as well as to the Policy Committee, other electeds, and more general audiences, who cannot be assumed to supply a margin of error, there should be more explicit discussion of the range of possible outcomes. (See "Beefing with the Population Research Center: Forecasting at the MPO" and all posts on precision in modeling for more on that.)

The TAC meets tomorrow the 14th at 1:30pm. The agenda and packet can be downloaded here.

1 comment:

Susann Kaltwasser said...

Interesting about the SKATS - CAC, I served on that committee back in 1995-97 as a representative from the Salem Keizer School District. Yes, ornamental became staff (Mike Jaffe) made it so. Perhaps he was told to, but nothing we commented on was not already pretty much pre-determined by staff. Sort of a "do you like A or B better?"

The last thing I recall working on was the communication plan. It was weak back then and even with technology, it is still weak.

As you know I am a Neighborhood Association chairperson as well as leader of the Land Use Network. We never hear anything of use from SKATS. Most LU chairpersons have no idea who they are, let alone what they do. Most citizens (as well as land use and NA members) don't know that some Salem streets, bridges and the airport are actually largely controlled by SKATS or at least the City have to get their permission to do anything to those infrastructures. Just listen to all the people talking about how the City Council needs to build a third bridge. Like they could even if they wanted to.

There is no need to have an advisory committee if it is not going to be listened to. People figure that out pretty fast. That's why no one wants to serve on them.