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"Partnership and Persuasion": An Exit Interview With Steve Heminger

During his last week on the job, MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger agreed to sit down with MTC’s Legislation and Public Affairs staff to reflect on his accomplishments, offer insights and speak to the future of regionalism. Following is an edited interview.

Q: You’ve accomplished a lot. What’s the one thing you feel the most proud of?

A: It’s safe to say that the project I was most associated with is the replacement of the Bay Bridge East Span, and I would probably broaden that to include the whole bridge construction program. I feel just incredibly fortunate that I was here at a time where we were going to be rebuilding that whole system, a new set of interstate highway bridges. We’ve had more bridge construction than at any time since the 1930s. We’ve been right in the thick of that. Not only with project oversight of the East Span but with financing the whole endeavor through the Bay Area Toll Authority.

Q: You’ve followed the ebb and flow of regional influence most of your career. Where are we now, and what’s the trend?

A: There is a push and pull. Regionalism is contested ground. You are contesting not just with local government, but also with the state and the federal government. All those players have very strong statutory powers, if not a constitutional basis, for action. They can essentially order people around, they’ve got police power. Regionalism is a different beast entirely. It’s really about partnership and persuasion. And it’s about trying to convince folks that if regionalism gets stronger, they’re not going to become weaker.

Q: Does strong action at the regional level put pressure on our policy board members, most of whom are locally elected?

A: Recently one of our Commissioners said there were days where he didn’t want to come to MTC because of what I was dragging him through. I think that is actually one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about me. Look, part of our job is to push our board. Part of their job is to push back. The push that is most prominent in recent days has been CASA and the housing agenda. Clearly, it is making a lot of people, including our board, uncomfortable but I think we need some uncomfortable conversation on that subject if we are going to make some progress.

Q: You’ve operated in a region with 101 cities and nine counties and many local agencies, as well as two-dozen transit agencies. Is there a way to streamline to more effectively work with the numerous institutions and agencies?

A: There’s no question that it’s just tougher to do business in a region that has 100 mayors versus a region that has only 1. And that in fact is the city of New York and the Bay Area. They both have about the same number of people, but one of them has one mayor and the other has 100 of them.

There has been some forward movement, at least in my career, on the transit side. But it’s largely been with very small systems in the North Bay, in Napa and Solano, and now I think Sonoma is headed down that path. I think that is probably to the good. There is no reason we need a dozen operators in four North Bay counties. But the big game is the big operators. And I think there the case for consolidation becomes quite a bit weaker because you are not going to save money with federal labor protections. And you may create some things that are too big. As we learned in the last economic downturn, it’s possible to be too big. We’ve tried to work around the problem with things like Clipper and 511 so the customer doesn’t see the creaky machinery behind their transit trip. I think we’ve had some success in doing that.

Q: What is the most surprising thing that happened during your run at MTC?

A: I don’t know if it’s a surprise, but I do think the commission rises to the occasion maybe more than I have a right to expect. We do challenge them, and I think we challenge them more perhaps than they’d like sometimes. But I’ve rarely seen an occasion where they just shrink from the battle. I think we are pretty lucky to have a board like that. Because this isn’t their day job. They’ve got other jobs they’re doing. I think some folks show up at MTC and maybe just hope they going to take the check home and that’s all there is to it. But we do more important work than that. I think for the Commissioners who come here with a different view, they quickly learn from their peers that we are here to do regional business. They quickly rise to this challenge.

Q: What have you learned from involvement in big infrastructure projects? They are fraught with potential risks and failures – is there a better way to manage megaprojects?

A: I think there is a shortage of humility. Someone told me the story, and I think it’s true, that the Apollo space program came in on budget. And the way they did that was to have a 40 percent contingency. Because they acknowledged that they’d never been to the moon before! I think far too many engineers who are running big infrastructure projects think they know everything and think they can skate through with a small contingency and an assumption that everything will stay on schedule, nothing will ever slip. And as a result they get bit in the ass when things do take longer than they thought and things do cost more than they thought. And lo and behold, unexpected things happen. They are digging in the earth and they find something they didn’t know was there. I think the enemies of any big project are time and money. And time is money. So if you assume that the project’s going to get done in some unreasonable timeframe, and it doesn’t, then you are going to end up paying a lot more than you thought. I think the first estimate we got from Caltrans about the East Span of the Bay Bridge, was about $1.5 billion, and the project would be done in 2003. And we finished it 10 years after that. Well, guess what? If it takes you 10 years longer, it’s going to cost a lot more. So I think that the lesson is a fairly simple one and, not to quote Donald Rumsfeld, but “It’s the unknown unknowns that will kill you every time.”

Q: If you could untangle red tape and requirements on one thing, what would it be?

A: I guess what I would probably say is you can’t revisit a decision. If I were king for the day, I would say you do your process, you do your studies, and once you make a decision, it’s over, and you proceed. Instead we encounter efforts to re-litigate, re-fight old battles, and open up a new front. We’ve even had governors trying to change the design of the East Span when it was under construction.

Q: What about CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act) requirements? Are they overly burdensome?

A: CEQA is backstopped by NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act). I’ve never thought CEQA was really the problem. Although in terms of CEQA litigation, what I’m learning from the CASA (Committee to House the Bay Area) process, is that for developers, if they are really skating on the edge of their pro forma, they just can’t take the delay. They will just move on to the next project. So CEQA has been used as a very effective cudgel against affordable housing projects, which has to be one of the greatest ironies of all time, that somehow we are using environmental quality to prevent people from having a roof over their head.

In the transportation arena, I never thought CEQA was that big of a deal. I think it is the permit process that is really bad. Going back to my wish for making just one decision, and then moving forward, I think it was the Benicia Bridge that we had to move the alignment three different times in the design phase because we kept getting different advice from the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Fish and Wildlife folks. And that’s nuts.

Q: After all of your years working in the public sector, what are your thoughts on public participation?

A: Public participation is a very good thing. The way we tend to manage that process could use improvement. I think the (practice of granting members of the public) three minutes at the microphone is maybe the least meaningful type of public comment we get. Yet it is the kind that is required by law so we have no choice but to do it. But in three minutes or two minutes, when there are a lot of people in the room, you cannot convey a lot of meaningful information. And when you are one of 70 people, it’s hard for your views to really matter.

I do think what we have started to do by going out to the rest of the region and working with community-based organizations to have a more in-depth conversation is a far better strategy. I think public opinion polling is a far better strategy, even though it seems to have some sort of taint of politics to it. But when you actually survey the public, you get representative views.

I find focus groups also to be very valuable, just as an insight into how people think about our work. One of the most interesting insights I gleaned from a focus group was the way folks viewed the transportation system. They kept talking about the transportation system, and what they meant was the transit network. They didn’t mean the highway system. The highway system was almost a given in their mind. What they wanted to change, what they wanted to fix, was the transit network. I’m not sure they wanted to ride transit, but that’s what their mind got around. It was transit that they wanted to do something about.

Q: What about MTC and ABAG’s governance and a possible consolidation of boards?

A: I’m going to be happy to miss that conversation. I’ve been through it a few times before. I think they got the most important thing done already, which is merging the staffs. If they can do something about the board structure, God bless them. But I don’t think that will be essential to the region’s success.

Q: What’s your advice to the next ED?

A: Therese (McMillan) has a lot of advantages coming into this job, so she doesn’t need much advice. To state the obvious, though, she’s worked here. In the 10 years she’s been gone, things have changed around here. So she’s going to find somethings she isn’t used to. But a lot of the work will be familiar to her. And that’s a big advantage with any new job. She’s done the work before. I think the fact that she also has a significant amount of Washington experience, which she didn’t have when she left, is going to be pretty valuable, too. I would also add: It’s about damn time that MTC had an executive director who is a woman.

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