San Francisco Bay Area transit agencies have been increasing fares and reducing service in an effort to cope with the current economic climate in California. But if the regional transportation network is going to persevere and prosper, consolidation of the region’s more than two-dozen transit agencies is needed to create a more effective, sustainable system.
One microcosm of the problem is on display in Palo Alto. A typical transit rider in the Peninsula city has to know how to navigate many systems – Caltrain, VTA, SamTrans, and the Dumbarton Express, just to name a few. They all have different fares and serve different areas, and almost without exception, you cannot easily transfer from one service to another.
Similar situations exist all over the Bay Area – in El Cerrito, for instance, riders at del Norte Station are presented with services from BART, AC Transit, Vallejo Transit, Fairfield Suisin Transit, WestCAT, and Golden Gate Transit.
Having all of these different agencies serving the Bay Area isn’t just confusing for riders – it also causes the regional network as a whole to spend money on excessive overhead costs that could go to providing more service. A handful of consolidated agencies could also prove more effective in bringing federal dollars to the region for transit projects.
Obviously, nothing in Northern California is ever as easy as it sounds. Many small cities will be concerned that larger consolidated agencies will be more prone to overlook their local needs. That makes the structure of the consolidated agencies very important.
In the East Bay, expanding the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District, which operates AC Transit, to include the entirety of these two counties seems logical. Since Solano County shares more in common with the East Bay, it could also be included with this agency.
It seems unlikely that any change would take place in San Francisco – the Municipal Railway would remain roughly the same agency. San Mateo and Santa Clara County would form a new Peninsula-South Bay transit district, and in the North Bay, a new Napa-Sonoma-Marin transit district would handle local service there.
Perhaps all inter-agency rail, bus, and ferry service could be handled by one regional agency – I’ll call it Bay Area Intercity Transit (BAIT). BAIT would run transbay buses as well as operate BART, Caltrain, the new SMART system in the North Bay, and an expanding ferry network. To make the most out of this consolidation, the agency should allow for easy timed transfers to local service, a unified fare system, and a single payment method that is compatible with local service such as the Clipper card.
Five agencies, nine counties – certainly not an ideal solution, but it would go a long way to reduce overhead costs and it would make transit an even more accessible option for travel in the Bay Area. For any sort of consolidation to work, the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission must take the leading role and perhaps become a more visible brand to riders. Having all agencies accept the Clipper electronic fare card is essential, and the MTC should continue to take the lead on this effort.
It won’t be easy and it won’t happen quickly, but to ensure the long-term survival and sustainability of the Bay Area’s robust transit systems – and to expand them into the world-class system the area deserves – agency consolidation will be essential.