SCAG President Rex Richardson on Equitable Planning for Regional Sustainability

In September 2020, the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) adopted Connect SoCal—the Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy that envisions how the region will plan for and balance future mobility and housing needs with economic, environmental and public health goals over the next 25 years. VX News sat down with outgoing SCAG President Rex Richardson to discuss how the long-range plan reflects the region's policy priorities in light of the stark inequities revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic. President Richardson, who serves as Vice Mayor of the City of Long Beach and sits on the South Coast AQMD governing board, shares his hope for a Biden administration infrastructure package that satisfies climate, equity, and health mandates and enables widespread adoption of clean fleet technologies at the San Pedro Ports.

As the outgoing president of SCAG and the Vice Mayor of Long Beach, what have been your regional priorities and the SCAG achievements that should define your term?

Rex Richardson: Coming into my role as president, we were already facing a crisis on many fronts in Southern California—an economic crisis caused by COVID-19, a public health crisis that we haven't seen in a century, and we were already dealing with the housing crisis and seeing the real impacts of climate change in our community. All of that together wrote our agenda for us. We had to be responsive to those needs, and we had to maintain our focus as a planning agency into the future because if we don't get this right today, we're looking at a very different reality for Southern California in 25 years.

Our priorities were to land our Connect SoCal Plan, our 25-year regional transportation plan and sustainable community strategy—setting a clear vision that is centered on equity and experiences of people. I want my six-year-old and my three-year-old to live in a healthy and thriving Southern California 25 years from now.

Secondly, SCAG works in the space of housing and transportation policy and we needed to be responsive to the equity mandate. Cities and regions around the country were confronted with the reality that there are very different experiences based on race within our communities. Housing policy is one of those areas that has been laced with institutional racism from the very beginning, so to assume that racism doesn't exist or that it's not an issue for today is to assume that stars don't exist in the sky. We should assume that policies are institutionalized based on a set of values laced with race and gender; housing is one of them, it's not an exception.

Faced with a global pandemic, a dramatic loss of jobs, and a racial reckoning, what has been SCAG’s regional policy agenda for Southern California?

I think we all have a responsibility to the next generation, to our own families, and to our broader communities and we have to acknowledge that Southern California has great potential. But also, we have some of the deepest poverty in America. We have communities with some of the worst air quality in America. So I want to see Southern California known for how we met this moment on equity and how we began to identify and systemically support communities of concern, which is a term defined in our Connect SoCal plan. We need to make a significant commitment to that because we are the largest MPO in America; what we do, others follow. And so, this is an opportunity to really shift the nation. If anyone would want to talk about what was the common thread of my presidency, it was that we embraced and advanced equity for cities within Southern California to set the stage for the advancement of equity across America.

Elaborate on how this past year’s challenges have affected the consensus assumptions behind the Connect SoCal plan adopted by your board?  Many regions clearly are now reassessing their economic recovery, public transit and public health planning about how constituents will live, work and play going forward.

Over the course of the past year that has come up, but there wasn't enough data just yet. We just rolled out our regional data platform at the right time, because we're going to need to be looking at data more in real time and seeing how trends are changing in this post-pandemic region. We've laid the foundation with Connect SoCal and the conversation now is how do we build a post-pandemic region and post-pandemic cities?

The pandemic has revealed much about what’s important to people and forced planning authorities to reconsider their models.  For example, will employees return to workplaces full time, or will there be a new hybrid work arrangement?  Will the public return in numbers to using public transit? Will greater appreciation of the need for EDI force public services to be recalibrated?  Is Open Space more valued than thought? Given the aforementioned, how might SCAG’s planning & density assumptions—that now undergird the consensus that you were able to reach last year—change in coming years?

Once we have about 9 to 12 months of data, we're going to have to do another study. We're beginning that work now to figure out what adjustments need to be made to our assumptions on Connect SoCal or whatever transportation modeling we're doing. I think that just has to happen.

The pandemic has taken issues that we're not receiving primetime attention and elevated them. The digital divide was something tacked on to a housing discussion or tacked on to transportation. ‘Dig once’ was something we kept hearing about. Now we have to think about broadband as a standalone planning category.

Infrastructure in your neighborhood is not really equipped for mass data through a cell network, and we know that lower income communities use a cell network to connect to the internet through hotspots at a more significant level at a higher level than high-resource communities.  There's a nexus now around cell infrastructure and how they are widening the digital divide.  Take access to fiber, for example. It’s very cheap to expand if your policies align and allow the private sector to come deploy fiber. So now you have to start thinking about all these things as standalone priorities. It didn't happen before. In all of that, I think the more we switch gears and get in tune with digital divide work, I think that will help stabilize what our modeling looks like for transportation. Those coming in are connected.

Let’s pivot to a governance question. Is “local government” capable of meeting the challenges you have identified? Or, are the bold policy challenges you have noted better addressed at the state level—as some California legislators assert? 

I don't think the State needs to usurp local government; we need to unlock the power of local government. Local government is taking on more responsibilities and delivering more services than it ever has any other time in history, including homelessness and permanent supportive housing, mental health, food security, basic income, workforce development, and public health. Long Beach is one of three cities in the entire state with its own public health agency, and what we can see is that now, in terms of the vaccinations, we're a national model, because we've built our local capacity over time to do so.

Local government has the least barriers of entry to develop leadership as it's less partisan and very few local governments actually have party caucuses. Typically, there are fewer special interests involved in local government than in state and federal government. People don't believe in the gridlock in Washington, but people do believe in their council, their mayor, and their school board members.

We need to unleash local government. We fund local government through unstable sources like sales tax, transient occupancy tax, oil taxes, and what we saw from the recession is that those went away. Our ability to deliver basic services like police officers, firefighters, and paramedics was placed in jeopardy because of the way we fund local government. The answer is to make local government more secure. Let's figure out better ways to incentivize and relieve some of the burdens.  Let’s have the state figure out how to carry these burdens of long-term pensions that are weighing us down. How can we help support local government so people's quality of life can be better?

Given SCAG’s role in transportation planning, elaborate on how you imagine our post-pandemic region‘s mobility policies will evolve?

Well, we of course saw a decline in transit ridership, but we also saw less carpooling and ride sharing. So, more cars came back on the road, because there were fewer people in each car. From an air quality standpoint, we took a step backward. Plus, we’ve started to see that the impacts of climate change are now making it more difficult to reach attainment levels because of wildfires and a whole host of things. We saw the worst levels of smog in a decade in LA, so that increases the urgency.

In my opinion, you’re going to see significant investments in making transit cleaner and have more capacity. I think we'll see more urgency on cleaning up vehicles. It was during this pandemic period that Newsom announced the 2035 deadline to get rid of internal combustion automotive vehicles, so I think you're going to see more of an effort. The way I hope we respond to it is by looking at how we can begin to build the fleets of the future with advanced technology.  A lot of this stuff may not be commercially available yet, or it may not be economically feasible for a person, like a teacher, to be able to drive a fuel-efficient zero emission vehicle. That's going to have to change. And I think there will be more urgency because of the alignment of COVID and climate and all of those things together.

While we record this interview, a federal infrastructure agenda is being curated in Washington. From your position with SCAG and as the Vice Mayor of one of California’s largest cities, what do you want included in the Biden Administration infrastructure package?

I want to see a few things.  I want to see a real commitment to clean infrastructure that sets the stage to clean our truck fleets coming out of the port. There's 18,000 trucks that need to be cleaned. Let's say they go hydrogen or let's say they go all electric, the infrastructure is not in place.  The grid needs to have that sort of capacity. Now is a significant opportunity for us to begin to really expand that infrastructure, which is going to have direct impacts on air quality, and, you know, life expectancy. So, I think that's something I want to see.

Secondly, I know there's a lot of focus on bridges and roads—and fixing crumbling roads is very, very popular—but I want to see us fix some crumbling buildings. Right now, that is not reflected in what's being proposed. I want to see Congress cutting some ribbon and breaking ground on buildings, community centers, indoor gyms, schools and things like that.

I know that the way we're thinking about it is by using HR 2, the Moving Forward Act as the foundation. Well, folks like Maxine Waters and others advocated for housing to be a part of HR 2. So, I want to see housing infrastructure be a part of this package. So, we need to make sure we have green infrastructure, that crumbling buildings are part of the conversation when we talk about crumbling roads, and housing infrastructure.

Lastly, President Richardson, you began our interview by noting that you were on the front edge of the millennial generation, born in ‘83. Do you find your generation and your peers want to be in political power?

I don't know that people want to be in politics. I think that people want the ability to self determine the outcome of their future. That could mean politics via Bernie Sanders and socialist revolution. To some it may mean joining the school board to fix a problem. But I don't see a lot of people being driven by some nostalgic sense of serving because my father and my grandfather served. What I get is that we're the ones we've been waiting for, so we have a social responsibility to help lead. Someone told me when I first start getting in office that people run for two reasons: to be somebody or to do something. I think my generation, if we step up and move and run for office, it’s mostly because we want to do something and there's plenty to do.

"I want to see a real commitment to clean infrastructure that sets the stage to clean our truck fleets coming out of the port...Now is a significant opportunity for us to begin to really expand that infrastructure, which is going to have direct impacts on air quality and life expectancy.