Now the hard work begins.

Leaders of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission on Wednesday temporarily halted their ham-handed bid for a hostile takeover of the Association of Bay Area Governments. Instead, the two regional planning agencies have promised to work cooperatively toward a needed and long-overdue merger.

There's much at stake. The Bay Area must better align housing, jobs and public transit. We spend too much time stuck in traffic. It will only get worse if we fail to build densely near transit centers and continue to approve sprawl along highway corridors already filled to capacity.

Unfortunately, for decades we've had two regional planning agencies -- one for transportation, the other for housing -- that have been engaged in passive-aggressive and sometimes open warfare.

The mantra of ABAG is local control. For MTC, the goal has been imposition of regional order. In other areas of the state, one regional agency oversees the two functions. But in the Bay Area they have always been split. Merging these two cultures won't be easy.

Previous attempts have failed. And this one almost died before it began. Last month, MTC's executive director, Steve Heminger, and board chairman, Dave Cortese, proposed that their agency take away key ABAG staff members.

The move would have gutted ABAG of its planners responsible for land-use and housing, and weakened the agency's financial underpinnings. MTC would have controlled the planning staff for both operations. To enforce the deal, MTC planned to withhold $4 million of annual funding for ABAG.


Cities, fearing loss of regional representation, protested loudly. In the end, the union for ABAG workers convinced Cortese, a labor-supported Santa Clara County supervisor, to back down. In other words: Right outcome, wrong reason.

Under the last-minute deal, approved Wednesday by an ABAG committee and unanimously by MTC, the two agencies will jointly hire a consultant and work cooperatively to develop a merger plan.

MTC set a July 1 deadline, at which time it will move forward with Cortese and Heminger's original plan if there's no merger deal. Thus, any merger would essentially be a shotgun wedding of disparate partners.

ABAG was created in 1961 by Bay Area cities and counties as a decision-making agency for regional issues. Its general assembly, with representatives from all 101 cities and nine counties, meets annually. But ABAG's primary board is its executive committee of 38 city and county representatives allocated by county based on population.

ABAG would also probably be responsible today for allocation of federal and state transportation dollars but for an unfortunate incident. It was discovered in 1968 that a staff member had embezzled $500,000. That killed the agency's hope of receiving the federal designation as the Bay Area's regional transportation planning agency, according to an ABAG history by former Executive Director Revan Tranter.

Instead, the Legislature in 1970 created the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which controls allocation of state and federal transportation funds in the Bay Area. The MTC board consists of 18 voting members, roughly allocated by county population.

Elsewhere in the state, where the planning functions are combined, a small portion of transportations funds goes toward housing planning. In the Bay Area, MTC doles it out to ABAG.

The $4 million annually represents one-third of ABAG's entire personnel costs. But it's a rounding error for MTC, which seemingly spends more each time rusted bolts are found on the Bay Bridge.

Nevertheless, that's the leverage forcing the merger discussions. It's good that we've finally reached this point. But success will require mutual respect between the agencies, accurate information and intellectual honesty.

Sadly, we haven't seen that from Heminger, who trumpets his agency's financial superiority. He portrays MTC's budget as 35 times that of ABAG, but that's because most of MTC's money is pass-through funding.

He dings ABAG's unfunded pension liability, but his agency has a similar problem. He says that liability will force ABAG to restate its reserves on its books, but doesn't mention that new accounting rules will require MTC to do the same thing.

The deadline for a deal is eight months away. It's time to end the disingenuous demonizing. For this merger to succeed, we need honest brokers at the table.

Daniel Borenstein is a staff columnist and editorial writer. Reach him at 925-943-8248 or Follow him at