Once a fringe idea, the idea of a merger of the Bay Area’s two major commuter rail systems appears to now enjoy more widespread support, according to poll results released Friday by the Bay Area Council, a local public policy and business advocacy group.
Across the nine Bay Area counties, 83 percent of respondents said they would be in favor of combining BART and Caltrain into a single integrated system. San Francisco led the pack with 86 percent of respondents indicating support.
“The Bay Area transportation system has long suffered from balkanization that has created inefficiencies and not always put riders first,” Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, said in a statement. “Whether or not merging Caltrain and BART is ultimately the right thing to do, these results send a loud message that we need to do a much better job of connecting and coordinating our many transit systems. The pandemic has put even more urgency around that.”
The survey polled 1,000 registered Bay Area voters who are representative of the larger pool, according to the Bay Area Council.
These results come at a time when conversations around the future of Caltrain are already underway.
Voters passed Measure RR in November, which applies an additional sales tax in the three counties Caltrain serves to fund rail operations. It stipulates the agency enact a series of governance reforms to unlock the full tax revenue collected, including the disentanglement of Caltrain and SamTrans, San Mateo County’s transit agency, which also manages the Peninsula rail system.
The Joint Powers Board that oversees Caltrain has embarked on a year-long process to determine how best to run the regional rail line in the years to come.
Director Steve Heminger, who represents San Francisco on the Caltrain board, floated at the Jan. 7 meeting that “some kind of regional rail enterprise centered around BART and Caltrain” should be considered.
On March 19, at the first of at least four meetings expected to take place this year focused on governance, staff presented three broad options for consideration: modification of the current structure, creation of a new structure to give Caltrain new management and options for regional mergers.
Even at this early stage, board members were divided over which path forward would be the best, split over concerns about accountability, board influence, affordability and the future of SamTrams as the entity with the largest investment Caltrain.
They did, however, approve a plan for the coming year that will allow them to meet the Measure RR-imposed deadline of December 2021 to recommend and vote on a governance structure for Caltrain.
The broader push for an integrated Bay Area transit network has heated up over the last year as service cuts have made the inefficiencies and inequities now endemic to the region even more glaring.
Creation of an integrated transit system — one where riders pay a single fare that allows them to travel from their point of origin to their destination with easy transfers between transit agencies — has been a fantasy for many Bay Area transit advocates for more than a decade.
With 27 disparate transit agencies that provide mobility throughout the Bay Area, the seamless transit concept maintains that coordinating fares, schedules and staffing would reduce delays, lengthy trip times and expensive prices that currently plague the regional system and discourage many passengers.
However, some Bay Area transit agency officials have countered that while there’s room for increased alignment and collaboration between service providers, a truly integrated system could jeopardize funding, quality of service and important localized control.
The pandemic has already forced unprecedented cooperation between these independent entities, starting with the formation of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Blue Ribbon Recovery Task Force to bring together general managers to collaborate for survival.
That same task force is currently studying the possible implications of more integrated transit systems, including a BART and Caltrain merger, among other ideas.
Assemblymember David Chiu hopes to build off this work. He proposed legislation in March that would require MTC to create a fare integration pilot program by July 1, 2023 and develop standardized wayfinding tools by the following year, among other provisions.
“Every day, hundreds of thousands of Bay Area residents have experienced a system that has been fragmented, unreliable, hard to use and inefficient,” Chiu told the Examiner at the time of the legislation’s announcement. “That’s the big picture.”
Steps have already been taken to more closely align BART and Caltrain for riders who use both regularly.
Riders can now pay on their phone with their Clipper Cards, a transit pass that can be used on most Bay Area transit, as opposed to just the physical plastic card; new wayfinding tools and easy cross platforms have been introduced at Millbrae Station, a common connection point; and the two agencies have recently made schedule changes to improve coordination.
BART spokesperson Alicia Trost said that active collaboration will continue but stop short of preparation for a possible merger until the Blue Ribbon Task Force completes its analysis.
“Until the findings of that study are available it is premature to look at what a merger would look like or presume that a merger would be the preferred outcome,” she said in an email. “Given the early stage of the regional process, we have not had any discussion with our board about the concept of a rail merger or integration with Caltrain.”