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Does Incremental Change Make a Difference?

The California Legislature sometimes pursues policies that, at first, seem to make little difference. These minor shifts, this sometime incremental change, can sometimes lead to significant gains. Take, for example, introducing a statutory requirement for disparate state agencies to come together to discuss shared interests.

During her tenure, Assembly Member Cervantes has publicly voiced her concerns about the way the California Transportation Commission (CTC) operates. She has introduced bills that would impact the CTC in various ways, from changing the composition of the commission to assigning the Governor the responsibility of appointing the Executive Director instead of the commissioners. Writing in support of one of her proposals, Assembly Member Cervantes stated:

"State transportation policy is not merely a study of streets and roads—it must also include other forms of transportation, such as mass transit, bicycling, or walking. The effects of transportation on other areas of public policy such as public health or climate change should also be considered. In addition, under existing law, there is no statutory guarantee that commissioners will give voice to the concerns of our disadvantaged communities, or the world of transportation that exists beyond roads and highways.”

One of Assembly Member Cervantes’ CTC-related reform proposals, AB 179, was signed into law by Governor Brown in 2017. AB 179, among other things, directs the CTC and the State Air Resources Board (ARB) to hold at least two joint meetings per calendar year to coordinate their implementation of transportation policies. At the time, both traditional transportation stakeholders and advocates for change seemed skeptical about what, if anything, these joint meetings might accomplish.

To be honest, it wasn’t clear that the CTC was going to be open to these conversations; one thing upon which everyone agrees, however, is that the CTC holds as sacrosanct its responsibility to follow state law. Therefore, Commission staff obediently scheduled the requisite meetings and developed joint agendas with ARB staff.

At first, public participants of these meetings could feel an almost palpable chill between the two state boards. Over time, however, the chill has dissipated as members of each board have found common ground and new understandings of each other’s missions. To nearly everyone’s surprise, the joint meetings have moved from begrudging time spent together to more productive presentations and conversations on how each entity can work together toward the state’s common goals.

This week marks the seventh meeting between CTC and ARB, and the third that includes the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD). This meeting’s agenda includes presentations from the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development as well as representatives from HCD and the California Public Utilities Commission on how the state can work to transition together toward the state’s goals for zero-emission vehicles; also, a presentation from the California Transportation Agency on the draft Climate Action Plan for Transportation Infrastructure.

Members of both boards were engaged and actively seeking ways their respective entities can contribute to the efforts. As someone who has watched the evolution of these meetings over the years, I am struck by how effective these joint meetings have been. The skeptics have been proven wrong – at least in this case, a seemingly inconsequential legislative change is leading to new and profound pathways for the state to pursue its many important goals with various challenges and costs in mind. The bottom line is that the work of the people is improved by these joint meetings. This lesson would be good to remember as we all move forward with other policy goals and objectives, and as the state continues to tackle the increasingly complex and challenging world.

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