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Planning for Disaster 

An obscure group gets millions to make L.A. work, but “SCAG” is a flop

Wednesday, Feb 14 2007
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WITH WIDELY PUBLICIZED REPORTS on smog, congestion, gangs and housing making Southern California sound more haphazardly unplanned than ever, a recent ceremony in which the region’s über–planning group awarded lumps of coal to cities and counties for their own poor planning fell particularly flat.

Last year, six counties, 187 cities and the federal government poured $23 million into the obscure Southern California Association of Governments, mandated by state and federal law to make sure Southern California doesn’t devolve into an unplanned and unlivable mess. But these days, even the think tank’s nickname — SCAG, as it is known to scores of mayors, council members and other political insiders — sounds like something clinging to you that you might be tempted to brush off.

A stream of recent bad news — of a regional economy that churns out crappy retail jobs while biotech and great blue-collar jobs boom elsewhere in California and the United States, of permanent damage to the lungs of thousands of children living in homes that the area’s city councils permitted to be too close to freeways, of an exodus of people with college degrees — increasingly calls into question why SCAG can’t deliver.

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SCAG and its longtime executive director, Mark Pisano, still talk in grand terms, glowingly telling the Weekly that SCAG is “the place where one can get ahold of the big picture, the place where business, government and nonprofits can come together. We’re the place that can speak to Southern California.”

Not many who live inside that big picture would agree. Although the group has its supporters in officialdom — Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine says that without SCAG, “We would have a planning disaster” — critics point to hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars spent by SCAG in part to produce housing, transportation, commerce and other reports tossed onto municipal planning shelves.

Craig Steele, city attorney for upscale Agoura Hills, west of the San Fernando Valley, says, “No one from Lawndale cares about what’s happening in Temecula . . . The local communities feel SCAG is so focused on their pet projects, like their fantasy high-speed rail, that communities are going ‘subregional’ to get things done for themselves.”

Joel Kotkin, a Los Angeles–based consultant who studies ways in which U.S. cities attract good jobs and build better neighborhoods, says, “These days I just make fun of SCAG. Their [economic and growth] projections are waaay off.” In the 1990s recession, SCAG warned that the unemployment rate would remain stuck at or above double-digits until decade’s end. Instead, by 1998 joblessness had tumbled. “SCAG was waaaay off” — by close to 100 percent. Adds Kotkin, “They go hysterical; they push doomsday scenarios. They figure if they make it sound so terrible, then something will be done. They’re ineffective.”

Pisano says, “We’re trying to make our voice heard in Washington and Sacramento.” But not many power players are listening. Part of that, critics say, is because his team’s ideas often sound like a riff from a Cheech and Chong stoner session: Hey, what if we build a high-speed super-railway, and then pull the 18-wheelers off the 710 and give them their own separate freeway?

A SCAG-envisioned 300-mph train that lets Southern Californians travel across the region à la George Jetson is hampered by only a few things: “Billions and billions of dollars — and somebody to plan and build it,” says Ashwani Vasishth, a former SCAG employee who scoffs at its proposals that remain unbuilt and unachievable.

“We’re never gonna fix the traffic problem,” Vasishth says. “You can only manage it. You can build double-decker highways, and expand infrastructure, but all that will do is allow for more traffic, which will create more traffic” — something he says SCAG refuses to recognize.

Part of the problem is Pisano, executive director of the planning think tank since 1976, a jargon-addicted bureaucrat who actually says things such as “We designed our structure so we have capacity through our subregions to listen to our members, and we have the capacity to pull our subregions and regions together through our council and decision-making process.”

Another problem is the disconnect between the outlying and the urban, cities and counties, especially given the attitudes of Los Angeles–centric elected officials. When asked by the Weekly to describe key problems affecting people in Southern California that could be alleviated by a dose of intelligent planning, powerful Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors member Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who also sits on the SCAG board, remarked, “The individual cities that make up the SCAG region should unite to do everything possible to boost the volume of goods the two huge ports can accommodate, and fix the battered and aging infrastructure that is stopping up that faucet.”

While Kotkin says yes, movement of port goods is an important economic issue, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Southern Californian who sees it as key to improving life here. Steele, who says he is speaking not as Agoura Hills’ city attorney but as a concerned citizen with 25 years in government, says SCAG has been slow to grasp the changing landscape. When SCAG was first organized in 1976, “They had a function. SCAG was — and some say still is — very L.A.-centric. L.A. had a lot of power and was the focus of SCAG’s attention.”

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