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San Luis Obispo Council of Governments Case Study

1990 Census Population 50,305 (urbanized area)
217,163 (county)
Map of California
Central City San Luis Obispo, California
Air Quality Status (1990) Attainment (non-attainment for state ozone and particulate matter standards)
Governor Designation Date July 1, 1992
Voting Policy Board Members

Five members of the County Board of Supervisors
One city councilor from each of the following cities:
Arroyo Grande
Grover Beach
Morro Bay
Paso Robles
Pismo Beach
San Luis Obispo

Non-Voting Policy Board Members

Caltrans (District 5 Director)

PL and 5303 Funding (Year of Designation) $286,362 (not including local match)
Initial Staff Size 6
Initial Staff Location San Luis Obispo County
Modeling Responsibility SLOCOG
GIS Responsibility Local governments
AQ Conformity Responsibility N/A (Caltrans does state AQ analysis)
Contacts Ron DeCarli, SLOCOG
Pene McCullough, SLOCOG (805) 781-4219
Dan Herron, Caltrans (805) 549-3510


The San Luis Obispo Council of Governments (SLOCOG) carries out the metropolitan planning organization (MPO) responsibilities in the San Luis Obispo region, consisting of the County of San Luis Obispo. This organization existed as a transportation planning body to comply with state regulations prior to the area’s urbanized area designation. The urbanized population in San Luis Obispo was 50,305 as of the 1990 Census. The most recent Census showed an increase in population to 53,498. The Census-defined urbanized area includes the central city of San Luis Obispo and portions of the county of the same name. The SLOCOG planning area, however, covers the entire county.

Steps to Designation
The director of SLOCOG first became aware of the San Luis Obispo’s urbanized area status from reading a national newspaper article in late 1991, but shortly thereafter officials at the regional California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) office contacted him. Caltrans held a meeting locally to discuss the responsibilities of an MPO. The meeting included representatives from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) in addition to county officials. SLOCOG’s board members suggested that their organization should take on this new role.

SLOCOG had been in existence since 1968 when the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) designated it as the region's recipient of federal housing funds. In 1972, the state added the regional transportation planning agency (RTPA) functions to SLOCOG. RTPAs are mandated by California state law and charged with the preparation of regional transportation plans and transportation improvement programs. California law had also been revised twice in the early 1990s so that RTPAs could better conform with the Intermodal Surface Transportation and Efficiency Act (ISTEA). There are 43 RTPAs in the state, 18 of which are also federally recognized MPOs. According to SLOCOG’s director, this similarity in mission and history of RTPA and MPO responsibilities being borne by the same agency made SLOCOG’s assumption of federal transportation planning duties a “logical extension.” Since SLOCOG already had a functioning transportation planning program, the additional federal transportation planning dollars were sufficient to fully fund the added responsibilities of an MPO at no additional cost to member jurisdictions.

Once the SLOCOG Board expressed an interest in taking on the MPO role, the majority of the effort spent preceding official designation as an MPO was on working with SLOCOG’s eight member governments to change the organization’s joint powers agreement (JPA) to assume the MPO designation and responsibilities. The JPA was the document outlining the terms of the members’ voluntary relationship to and support for SLOCOG. After the SLOCOG board had approved changes to the JPA, it was circulated to each city council and county board of supervisors for formal ratification. After the JPA was approved by all member jurisdictions, it was forwarded to Caltrans along with a resolution and memorandum of understanding signed by Caltrans and SLOCOG. Caltrans then forwarded the package of documentation to the cabinet level state agency, the Housing, Business and Transportation Agency (in which the Caltrans agency is housed) for formal designation on behalf of the governor. This occurred on July 1, 1992, roughly nine months after the first contact between Caltrans and SLOCOG.


Housing and Staffing the MPO
SLOCOG’s staff had begun to expand prior to its assumption of MPO duties. According to a Caltrans official, this increase in staff size was due to the SLOCOG board’s satisfaction with work being done by the agency. At the time of formation, SLOCOG was still housed in the County of San Luis Obispo’s planning department and its employees were considered county employees. Five of SLOCOG’s employees focused on the agency’s MPO responsibilities at the outset.

A couple of years after formation, SLOCOG moved out of the county offices and into their own space. Caltrans described the motivation for doing so as “half political, half survival.” The president of the SLOCOG board at the time had explained to the SLOCOG director that she was uncomfortable having the county sign the staff’s checks. She was interested in moving in a direction that would provide SLOCOG with the additional independence that its own space could provide. In addition to the president’s concerns, staff had internal fears about SLOCOG’s future within the county government. As a result of the recession in the early 1990s, the county’s revenues had declined, and the planning department was viewed as being overstaffed. SLOCOG’s director learned that layoffs would be based on seniority and most of the recently hired transportation planners that assumed MPO responsibilities would likely be laid off and replaced with more senior land use planners from the planning department. Desiring to maintain its professional transportation planning staff, SLOCOG began the process that culminated in independence from the county in 1995. SLOCOG secured its own budget and benefits in addition to moving into their own office space. Although the process was logistically difficult, the director sites it as having been a positive move.

Transit Operator Involvement
At the time SLOCOG assumed MPO responsibilities for the urbanized area, there were several regional and municipal transit operators in the county. The largest of these was San Luis Obispo Transit (SLOT), which was run by the City of San Luis Obispo. According to the Caltrans official, it took a couple of years for SLOT to draw down federal funds under the new MPO system. He explained that one of the biggest transitions faced by small MPOs is that the new designation “bumps” a lot of money quickly to transit, while at the same time placing significant requirements on the MPO and operator administratively to comply with federal regulations. The result can be a lag between the time new funding is available for transit and the point at which the MPO and transit operator have developed the expertise to comply with the additional federal reporting requirements for receipt of that funding.

Within a couple of years of the MPO designation, four of the small transit operators in the county consolidated to form San Luis Obispo Regional Transit Authority (SLORTA). The MPO director views the formation of SLORTA as a major success. Although the consolidation of the four systems into SLORTA was not directly related to the formation of the MPO, the SLORTA board features the same membership as that of SLOCOG (but with its own staff). As a result, the MPO director explained that transit is very well represented on the SLOCOG board—“instead of one or two transit representatives, we have twelve serving with two hats.”

Technical Support
The San Luis Obispo urbanized area is in attainment for federal air quality standards although it is a non-attainment area for the stricter California ozone and particulate matter standards. In California, air pollution control districts are created for each air basin to handle the state’s clean air requirements. These primarily regulatory bodies are created by statute with representatives from local governments. There is some overlap with SLOCOG membership as local council members and the county supervisors serve many regional functions.

Since SLOCOG meets federal standards there is no emissions budget that the MPO must monitor through a regional model. Historically SLOCOG has developed city or subregional models, but has not developed a countywide model. The City of San Luis Obispo has its own central-area model which SLOCOG has employed and the county had also provided the MPO with a subregional model covering the southern portion of the planning area. Both models have been merged by SLOCOG to create a large subregional traffic model. Both respondents agreed that this “joining of products” has not been the best way to build a model. GIS work has also been done on a piecemeal basis, with each of the cities doing their own mapping. SLOCOG has recently received a statewide grant, however, that provides funds to develop a comprehensive GIS system in coordination with the seven cities, the county, Caltrans and California Polyltechnic University.

MPO Products
The early development of certification documents did not present a great challenge for SLOCOG as many of the requirements mirrored those in California law for RTPAs. The requirement for a long-range transportation plan is very similar to the California requirement, according to the SLOCOG director. The federal Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) was also very similar to existing efforts and resulted in a simple compilation into the federal format of all federally funded projects that had already been programmed by the RTPA. The director identified additional benefits that have accrued to the smaller cities in the county through the MPO process. One such benefit is the manner in which federal surface transportation program (STP) funds are disbursed. Prior to the MPO designation, the county allocated STP funds by a set formula with each city receiving a set amount per year—as low as $50,000. SLOCOG assumed programming of this funding and established a capital improvement program covering a five-year period. Under the new system SLOCOG sets targets for what each city can expect over the five-year period and then develops a schedule for fund allocation and programs the funding by project rather than jurisdiction. This allows projects that are ready to go to move forward, thereby expediting project delivery. Under the previous system, the small city would have to wait for seven years of formula funding to build a $350,000 project. The MPO system has actually enhanced the smaller cities’ ability to take on large capital projects.


Note: Two officials involved in the assumption of MPO responsibilities by SLOCOG were contacted for this study. These officials were the SLOCOG Director, and an official from Caltrans.


Map of San Luis Obispo County

Source: San Luis Obispo Council of Governments website: