Making the case for Bay Area transit agency consolidation

9 counties, 8 bridges... two-dozen transit agencies?

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.

4 thoughts on “Making the case for Bay Area transit agency consolidation

  1. njudah

    Then Sen. Quentin Kopp brought up this idea during his 1990 re-election run. He even had a brochure with what a unified “one agency to serve them all” might look like.

    Aside from the obvious cost savings, you’d also make transit more useful in general. Every time I leave San Francisco and go to San Mateo County, aside from BART and Caltrain, there’s really no easy or fast way to get to central San Mateo county, and the service SamTrans provides does not go many places in the County. It’s kind of frustrating when I have to get somewhere down there that’s not just off of a major route – I end up taking a cab or renting a car!

  2. Steve Lowe

    Looking down the road a bit, say maybe 100 years from now, is there any doubt that the greater Bay Area metropolitan region won’t be consolidated into one big city and thought of in pretty much the same way that outsiders today think of LA or New York? So the question to those of us who would dearly like to see the efficiencies and savings that can be realized from consolidation is: when can we start, and what’s the benefit to taxpayers or seniors or schoolkids or anyone else who has to pay substantially more for services than those services are really worth if sliced and diced and made to be as truly efficient when all is said and done? When can we vote on such a regional consolidation and the right to shake off the yoke of mismanagement and horrible decisionmaking of administrators who can’t see beyond the tips of their noses – mostly because of city limits? We’re all too obviously going to be a megacity someday, why not now when we need it?

  3. Brent Bucknum

    I’m all for better, cheaper more efficient regional transportation, but is more agency and big transit business consolidation really the most hopeful and visionary model for our transportantion future?

    To me it sounds depressing! Won’t a bigger bureaucracy just be more inefficient and less flexible, and dynamic? More bad Bart Cnnector decisions that are political and dont make sense. More, bigger, badder AC transit service and more expensive bart?

    I think a more inspiring and realistic near future transportation infrastructure, is a ubiquitous one, that obviously has a large scale public infrastructure backbone, but also one that finds lower cost solutions, that utilize our existing road infrastructure, for better or worse.

    Who cares if the big backbone is one or 10 companies? Seems like Clipper is well on its way to streamlining this problem technologically, if not bureaucratically? And MTA should just mandate more timing and interoperability.

    To me, the explosion of Uber and other ride sharing and ride serving mobile softwares, are revolutionizing transit and the idea that small scale, semi-private businesses coud be viable.
    Now the only thing we need to do is develop a system to scale this up and accommodate more ridership than the Uber model. Lets support these semi-private entrepreneurial endeavors, regulate them, and fund them to get equipped with Low E vehicles, then get these prius, LPG SUVS, stretched, customized and pimped by the best in east oakland and build a jeepney culture ala India and the Philippines( . Come one guys, lets make transportation more fun! And at the same time fill in the regional backbone with more localized interconnector transportation, which is the real barrier to more ridership, not the regional inefficiencies.

    1. Steve Lowe

      All points worthy of discussion, Brent, but just a cursory look at the issue of public safety – or lack of same – in Oakland cannot but lead to the conclusion that a pooling of resources in the greater metropolitan region is not only warranted, but absolutely necessary. Oakland’s economy is such that it can hardly generate enough revenues to pay for its own police force, let alone all the other services that by law it’s supposed to provide.

      Geez Louise, if folks from all over the Bay Area are driving here to dump mattresses, hazmat waste and every other crummy thing they’d never want in their own tony neighborhoods, shouldn’t they have to help shoulder the load? With more parity built into a more regionally-managed governmental system, poorer neighborhoods might just begin to be treated (somewhat) the same as Mill Vally, Millbrae, Milpitas and everywhere else that the millionaires retreat to so that actual contact with the disadvantaged isn’t an issue – unless, of course, your waiter at the country club happens to need chastising for using his whisk broom incorrectly.

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