Want to simplify regional transit? It’s complicated

Advocates call for ‘seamless’ integrated system with synchronized schedules, fares

Bay Area transit officials, advocates and riders agree: the region’s public transportation system is confusing, often unreliable, expensive and unable to attract wide swaths of residents who could otherwise benefit from it.

What they don’t necessarily agree on, though, is how to solve those problems.

On Monday, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Fare Integration Task Force will meet to discuss the next steps in an ongoing study to explore how to better coordinate regional transit.

There, advocates will call on transit leaders to consider a “transformational” overhaul of the regional system that would include a common fare structure and the creation of a new government entity to oversee centralized fare collection and revenue distribution, an action that would require legislation.

“The creation of a Network Manager would have impacts on the authorities of our existing transit agencies. They wouldn’t have control over the same things they do now,” said Ian Griffiths, policy director at the nonprofit Seamless Bay Area. “It would involve change, which is hard.”

Transit agency leaders are skeptical, however, and say there are more achievable, cost-effective ways to make the regional system better serve riders.

“What we’re doing is, rather than focus on the most expensive, time-consuming and lowest value work like comprehensive fare integration, we’re instead trying to focus on the work that matters most to the customer and is most readily available in a short time frame and with our limited resources,” San Francisco Municipal Transportation Director Jeffrey Tumlin said.

27 Bay Area transit agencies

The MTC runs the region’s Clipper card program, but it lacks the authority to set fares. Instead, each of the 27 Bay Area transit agencies has individual discount programs, uncoordinated schedules that fail to sync up transfers between modes and a dearth of fare schemes that incentivize regional travel by public transit.

SPUR, a San Francisco-based sustainable urban planning nonprofit, says this fragmentation is why less than 5 percent of trips made in the Bay Area are taken by transit.

“Having so many different systems makes it harder for riders to understand and use the services available to them,” a report released Tuesday says. It too calls for the creation of a central authority to manage the operations of a cohesive regional transportation network.

Fare integration is simple on paper: riders pay one easy-to-calculate fare based on the distance traveled to any destination in the Bay Area, even if they have to use multiple agencies.

But, in fact, it’s far more complicated in practice.

In fact, Tumlin called it “the hardest step in creating transit for the region, in part because fares are central to the financing strategy of every operator, and every operator needs fares in complex and different ways.”

For example, nearly 70 percent of BART’s operating budget comes from farebox. The same was true for Caltrain until it won approval of sales tax Measure RR in November. SFMTA, however, relies almost equally on parking revenues.

‘A decade’s worth of advocacy’

Ambitious climate goals coupled with highway gridlock have spurred more than a decade’s worth of advocacy on behalf of fare integration, finally helping to launch a study on the topic last September to chart a path forward on some kind of regional transit coordination, if not full blown fare integration.

Led by the Clipper Executive Board, which is made up of regional transit officials, the study uses leftover funds from voter-approved Regional Measure 2 passed in 2004.

Assemblymember David Chiu even introduced a bill in February that would have required the nine Bay Area counties to coordinate service and fares. He tabled the bill a few months into the pandemic, but said he planned to reintroduce it once the crisis had passed.

Monday’s meeting is the next step in the process to determine ways to achieve transit coordination and set goals. Advocates say that conversation should include institutional reform.

“We’re going to have such scarce resources moving forward that we have to be very deliberate about how we want to rebuild our system,” Griffiths said. “We really can’t afford a bunch of redundant, inefficient systems.”

Advocates say fare integration fosters stable, centralized revenue and a coordinated service plan that, in turn, improves reliability, efficiency and ridership across all agencies.

They also say historic fears over losing proprietary farebox revenues pale in comparison to the current budget crisis.

“The financial upheaval [transit agencies are] going through right now is so much greater than anything that could’ve come from fare integration,” Griffiths said.

Tumlin says not so fast.

Risks to fare integration

Different agencies each serve different populations with varying needs, and those circumstances influence how they prioritize resources.

Take SFMTA, where Tumlin says they “take equity more seriously than in other parts of the region,” as evidenced by deep discount programs available to much larger portions of the population.

Fare integration risks putting “equality over equity,” and, in its effort to make everything uniform, doesn’t necessarily “mean we bring everyone up to the highest quality.”

“It could mean a world in which finances are constrained, watering everyone down to the lowest common denominator,” he cautioned.

More pressing than all-or-nothing fare integration is the survival of these agencies, which is far from a given for at least the next two years, according to Tumlin. The SFMTA is looking at estimated $68 million and $168 million budget deficits over the next two fiscal years, respectively, and the prospect of over 1,200 employee layoffs in order to close the gap.

“We love talking about and thinking about how to set ourselves up for a strong recovery, but it’s important to not burden a bunch of agencies that are worried about whether they will exist or not in two years,” he said. “We have bandwidth limitations and we very much need to focus on our survival right now.”

Unprecedented collaboration

Differences aside, advocates and officials largely agree that for all the challenges and devastation wrought by COVID-19, it has also made it clear that local transit must improve and started conversations about how to achieve that change.

For one, Bay Area transit leaders are working in close concert on a regular basis through the Blue Ribbon Recovery Task Force.

Griffiths called the regular meeting of the minds “the best opportunity we’ve had in a generation” to get many of the necessary stakeholders in the same room to focus on regional network connectivity.

Set to expire in June, the Blue Ribbon Recovery Task Force has served as a breeding ground for unprecedented collaboration between agencies. SFMTA has partnered with SamTrans and Golden Gate Transportation District to fill service gaps, for example, and the task force released a joint transit safety plan in a bid to regain public trust back in August.

According to Tumlin, conversations have also started about how to prioritize “customer over agency” in everything from maps and marketing materials to digital interface design and Google Maps-like technology.


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