The Merced County Association of Governments (MCAG) was chosen by the Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the California Department of Transportation to pilot a new program, Partnership for Integrated Planning (PIP), which aimed to: streamline planning and the project-delivery process; avoid environmental impacts; foster collaboration among planning, transportation, and environmental agencies; and engage the public at the beginning of long-term transportation planning.
Merced County provides a challenging test case through rapid population growth, cultural diversity, high unemployment, and increasing conflicts between stewardship of sensitive habitats and prime farmland and demands for transportation improvements and housing.
The Partnership for Integrated Planning (PIP) included the development of geographic information system (GIS) tools for modeling growth and environmental impacts to produce real-time maps and tables resulting from policy choices at public meetings. PIP engaged all regionally relevant planning, natural resource, and regulatory agencies in data-sharing exercises to integrate data important to each agency into the scenario testing and planning process. Most importantly, the Merced County Association of Governments (MCAG), which is the coordinating partner in PIP, led an extensive outreach program to engage the community in PIP.
To project land-use changes, we adapted UPlan, a rule-based land-use model developed at the University of California at Davis. UPlan incorporates user-controlled policy inputs ranging from general plan map choices, housing densities, and household labor rates to the ranking of environmental amenities. These are combined with user-settable infrastructure growth attractors to distribute population-growth estimates into spatially explicit land-use scenarios. UPlan stores all user-specified assumptions so many scenarios may be tested against one another in a transparent fashion. We evaluated information needs by asking planning agencies which features (such as roads and urban service boundaries) they considered attractions and discouragement factors for growth. Resource agencies were asked what environmental factors should discourage or constrain growth. All agencies were asked to provide all available and relevant data.
This shared information resulted in an Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA) map and a Prime Agricultural Lands map. These two maps were evaluated at a workshop attended by resource agencies’ representatives, elected officials, and city and county planners. Contributors included over 20 federal, state, and non-governmental organizations.
Like most public agencies, MCAG has historically solicited public input for regional transportation planning from a few community workshops. For example, in 2001 the agency held seven workshops for its previous plan. Under PIP, MCAG held 20-32 meetings each quarter, for a total of 100+ public meetings in 18 months. In addition, MCAG replaced the previous narrow focus on transportation by asking county residents to develop a vision for land use, natural resources, and transportation throughout their community. MCAG mastered the use of UPlan and accompanying environmental data and improved substantially on both throughout the course of these public meetings.
Historically, transportation-plan approval has run into considerable public and agency opposition. Federal officials in the last decade have attempted to streamline the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA, which is California’s NEPA equivalent), and other permitting procedures. A goal of PIP was to find a method for responsibly arriving at a consensus plan with less conflict, particularly in the environmental-review phase. The Regional Transportation Plan was approved by the MCAG Governing Board and received no opposition during the CEQA Environmental Impact Report (EIR) public-comment period.
Results of the Partnership for Integrated Planning model include:
* 800 percent increase in public participation in the transportation-planning process * 89 percent of participants said they enjoyed the PIP project * 89.1 percent of participants said they learned more about transportation issues * 30 percent increase in awareness of the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) among all county residents * New issues brought to the surface from county groups who had not previously participated in the process * Better relationships were built at both the county and city level among civic organizations, agencies, and residents * RTP was approved by the MCAG Governing Board and received no opposition during public-comment periods * Development of an Environmentally Sensitive Areas map based on shared information from a variety of resource- agency databases * Development of a Prime Agricultural Lands map based on input and information from a variety of agricultural interests
Further research is needed on the portability of this information and this tool-centered collaborative approach. Adjacent counties with similar needs are prime candidates for study. In addition, future projects should include measures of the social and political planning decision network structures existing before and after the conduct of such projects.