What the #$*! Does SCAG Know!?*

When the Southern California Association of Governments puts out its annual State of the Region report, it’s usually a one-day story in the L.A.-area local media, and no story at all in Sacramento or Washington, D.C., where one could argue SCAG’s findings are really aimed — at the custodians of the mythical treasure chests where money to build all the roads, commuter rail lines, housing and schools we need is supposed to come from.  

scag-report-card-detail-copy.jpgSCAG’s report would get even less attention if it weren’t for the easy PR hook of a “report card.”  The report card itself is unpleasant reading, as the headlines reflect: “Quality of Life is Dim.” “State of Region Report is Bleak.” “Traffic Negatively Affects Life in SoCal…Duh.” The LA Times didn’t bother with it, instead choosing to focus on how the Inland Empire used to be affordable, but not so much anymore.  

The percentage of households able to afford a median-priced home in Riverside and San Bernardino counties dropped from 48% in 2001 to 18% last year, as the median price for an Inland Empire home increased from $157,000 to $374,000 during the same period, the study found.

Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge is also a SCAG board member and was in charge of this report.  As he assesses the explosive growth in his area, he makes the point that has always annoyed me about SCAG:

Loveridge compared his region’s growth to the boom that hit Orange County and the San Fernando Valley years ago. “You try to learn lessons,” he said, “but there are clearly market forces and social forces that help shape what takes place.”

New residents are moving to Riverside and San Bernardino counties from elsewhere in the United States, the study showed, bucking a larger regional migration trend.

Last year, 24,000 more people left Southern California to live and work in other parts of the United States than moved here, according to SCAG statistics.

Regional officials suggested that that turnaround could reflect Southern California’s cost of living, including high housing prices. The region last year registered a near-record-low mark in housing affordability, the report found. Still, it has not dampened the region’s housing construction boom.

In other words, nothing SCAG does or says matters.  If you’ve been around public affairs in LA long enough, you know that by now, SCAG could phone in these reports from a shack in Wyoming.  The numbers they crunch and package for public consumption are meant to spur action to change the region’s negative trends, but they can’t even stop history from repeating itself. Against “market forces and social forces,” SCAG and the region-wide consensus of elected officials who all endorse its agenda are impotent.  

The clue to SCAG’s weakness?  The report card, with all its C’s and D’s and F’s, is a policy-wonk view that doesn’t fit with what real people think.   According to SCAG’s own survey, more than half of Southern Californians think things are going “very well” or “somewhat well,” while less than 10 percent think things are going very badly.  Only about 20 percent of Southern Californians think transportation is the region’s top problem — and the survey shows there is no consensus about what the top problem really is. Crime, environment, economic concerns, education and immigration are each named by about 10-15 percent of the region’s residents as the top problem. 

SCAG, which is chartered as a regional planning entity, claims authority “to promote economic growth, personal well-being, and livable communities for all Southern Californians,” but has few tools with which to fulfill this grandiose promise.  This is why the agency is so relentless in telling us that traffic, the environment and affordable housing are bad and getting worse.  Its leaders perpetually wait for a call from the people of Southern California to come to their rescue.  

We’ve got myriad problems in Southern California, but the ones SCAG focuses on aren’t especially unique.  The environment is now perceived as a global issue.  Where you stand on housing affordability depends on whether you are currently an owner or a renter.  Most Southern California owners have an investment that appreciates faster than most other ventures. 

Traffic congestion is part of living in an urban area; it improves only when the economy weakens, and no one wants that.  People in Southern California figure that part of living and working includes traffic jams, crowded buses and trains, parking hassles, etc.  They don’t think it’s much different in other cities, where you can also get stuck in traffic — and freeze your butt off in December.  They don’t think anyone has the answers to problems like this — least of all an obscure public agency that seems obsessed with telling them what they already know. 

*Edited, 12/17

2 thoughts on “What the #$*! Does SCAG Know!?*

  1. My favorite is when local politicians running for re-election tout their service on the SCAG board. As a reporter, when I used to asked what the accomplishments of SCAG were, usually the only response was the issuance of one of these reports. Unfortunately, SCAG does have some duties beyond these reports, and I believe it has something to do with signing off on transportation-related proposals such as LAX Master Plan or traffic plans or something like that. Still, we’re all waiting to hear what its contribution is, beyond an acronym that is funnier than the one associated with that other meaningless local body, the South Bay Council of Governments, or South Bay COG.

  2. When SCAG is asked to declare this or that project to be “in conformance” (I believe that’s the term) with the regional plan, my experience is that’s the time they are at their most political.

    Their forecasts are also subject to lobbying. There has always been pressure on SCAG to, somehow, push growth north, rather than east. And of course, those pesky “market forces and social forces” interfered with their plans — hence the explosive growth in the Inland Empire. I guess by now that’s ancient history, since we’re also seeing a lot of growth in the Antelope Valley. But the reason the city of LA owns the massive, little-used Palmdale Airport property is because SCAG assured them the market would be there for it.

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