Saturday, October 24, 2009

Transit consolidation or a waste of time?

Consolidating the number of transit operators is a concept that has always been politically attractive. Having many transit agencies in the area adds confusion for riders, forcing transfers at mostly politically drawn boundaries with little regards to actual transportation needs, and increase transit expense for those who have shorter trips that require transfer to another operator (e.g. Mountain View to Menlo Park vs. Mountain View to San Jose).

MTC has approved a $2.5 million study to evaluate transit consolidations, with focus on where MTC believes that there's transit overlap. The primary motivation is to reduce the growth of transit operating cost in the long run, which MTC has projected a $8.5 billion deficit over the next 25 years.

MTC and the politicians may have big expectations, but what really could be done?

- Some transit agencies in the North Bay are ripe for consolidation. In Sonoma County, Sonoma County provides regional intra-county bus service, Golden Gate Transit provides inter county service, and some cities operate their own buses within the city border. It is likely that some of these would be consolidated. Most of the bus agencies there contract their operation to private companies. A merged agency could consolidate their contracts or keep multiple contracts.

The cities of Vallejo and Benicia have approved a plan to merge their city-run bus operations. Because both systems are relatively small, a merger would provide more convenience for transit riders.

- Do not count on older agencies like AC Transit, Muni, VTA, BART, or SamTrans to be merged. The labor costs with the older agencies are quite high, and will meet great resistance from labor unions. In addition, older transit operators have different tax base that subsidize their operations. Voters in the East Bay have approved multiple parcel taxes over the years for AC Transit operations. How could you ensure funding equity, where taxes approved for one region will stay in one region?

- Muni's operations is so poor that it would actually be advantageous to allow other bus operators (public or private) to provide service. Other agencies that run buses to Downtown San Francisco cannot pick up SF only passengers because of "competition." Muni's real competitions are bicycle and automobile, and Muni is losing to both.

- What really needs to be done, but probably won't be done because of MTC's pro-rail (especially BART) position, is to facilitate the establishment of more regional bus service. Today's political make up prevent the creation of direct express bus routes from San Francisco neighborhoods to work sites in the Silicon Valley. Muni's broke and can't pay for it. VTA won't run it because it is not efficient for them (long deadheading) and workers in San Francisco are not VTA's political constitutents. SamTrans won't run it because these commuters just travel through the county.

Moreover, all three of them are subsidizing Caltrain, except that many SF residents won't take it because it would take them another 30-45 minutes just to get to the Caltrain station on Muni.

At the end, these political gaps help companies like Bauer's, which is handling many of the Valley's shuttle contracts and is starting a shuttle service that's open to the public (recently got state approval).

- Labor issues and strike threats are major problems for mega agencies. In Los Angeles, a number of past MTA (major bus and rail operator) strikes help politicians understand that there's value of having multiple agencies (LA area has a few large bus agencies besides MTA, plus many small city run operation). One of the agencies (Foothill Transit) was created out of the MTA because MTA was providing poor service. Foothill Transit was able to run service at a lower cost through private contracts.

Labor issues at BART have already created nightmares for commuters every few years with strike threats, except that a BART strike wouldn't harm local bus service, whereas a merged agency could.

- Could there be a way to better spend that $2.5 million that MTC will spend on consultants, especially when so many agencies are cutting back service already? One of the reason why transit operating cost is raising so fast is that much of the increases is spent on health care. As we all know, our broken health care system is putting pressures on governments and private businesses. Unfortunately, there's not a lot local governments can do to curb increases in health care costs.


Anonymous said...

I could never understand why one county, Contra Costa, could manage FOUR separate bus agencies operating in different parts of the county: AC, CCCTA West Cat and Tri Delta. Add BART to the mix and you've got five public agencies competing for the taxpayer's money. It's long overdue for a consolidation. Your point about SF-Silicon Valley express buses is well taken, however, and shows how the public transit agencies are not really serving the public.

arcady said...

Transit consolidation is a tough problem, partly just because of the sheer scale of the Bay Area. It's 130 miles from Santa Rosa to Gilroy, a trip that can be done via only three transit providers: Golden Gate, BART, and VTA. There's also a huge diversity of transit services, from BART's rapid transit and the dense urban networks of Muni and AC Transit, to the mostly suburban and much less frequent services further out. And the municipal divisions don't necessarily align well with travel patterns, and a multiplicity of special-purpose districts only complicate matters further.

I think the problem is not necessarily that there are too many transit agencies, but in the way in which they are divided, in particular, the single mode agencies like Caltrain and especially BART. There are also problems at the interfaces between agencies, but I don't think those require a regional mega-agency to solve. I think the solution might be to separate funding from operations: that is, the cities, counties, or special purpose districts that pay for a service are don't necessarily have to be the ones who operate it, and furthermore, from the user's perspective, it's the operators that are visible. So the entire Sonoma-Marin transit network can be operated under the Golden Gate Transit brand. If the cities in Sonoma County really want to control their own bus systems let them, but as far as the rider is concerned, it'll all be part of the Golden Gate network, with the schedule and fare coordination that implies. Likewise, some successor to Caltrain would be responsible for service on the Peninsula, and perhaps a merged AC Transit/BART system would run everything in the East Bay. There would only be a few actual operating agencies to deal with, which makes for a more understandable and more regionally unified system (and hopefully fare structure), and better coordination at the boundaries.

Then again, maybe merging everything into one huge agency is the way to go: it'll be awesome if they extend the trolleybus line all the way from the Ferry Building to Eastridge.

arcady said...

Come to think of it, this mode-based thinking is still pervasive in transportation planning around here. Consider the High Speed Rail, which is very much designed as a standalone system, not really integrating with anything, especially not the existing Amtrak California network.

arcady said...

... And today we see the perfect example of what I'm talking about. AC Transit can't run transbay service, so they're taking everyone to BART stations. But there's no cross-honoring of fares, and no free transfers, indeed not even a common fare medium. Now there's a huge mess as AC Transit riders now suddenly have to buy BART tickets, and also suddenly have to pay considerably more for their transbay service (unless they're lucky enough to not have to take a bus to the station).

accountablevta said...

Having a single local bus line from Downtown SF to East San Jose isn't realistic from an operational perspective. The SF portion has different demands than the rest of the portion. Back in the old days, the number 40 interurban to and from San Mateo travelled on Mission Street in SF, on the same track as the 14-Mission streetcar. They were all ran by Market Street Railway.

Muni, SamTrans, and VTA operators aren't paid the same and have different work rules and culture. Does a merger means that somehow all these operators have to be paid the same and share the same rule and culture? It probably means service degradation rather than improvement. Considering that Muni operators are OK with people not paying the fares by boarding through the back door, does that mean that culture will extend all the way to San Jose?

As for the bridge closure, it sucks, but AC Transit and BART allow the use of Translink cards, which resolve a lot of confusion. AC Transit already requires its 31-day passes to be loaded through Translink exclusively, so their regular riders can already use the same card (although money has to be loaded) on BART.

amandainsjc said...

Based on my own experience, what is needed is better coordination between current agencies, not really a new one.

Translink as has been mentioned is a good idea, as well as making minor changes-like having the Winchester bound LRT in MV wait a few extra minutes for people to get off of southbound Caltrains, for example, or better timing at Diridon so that LRT can connect to Caltrain.

Heck, the VTA can't even get transfers involving its LRT right; I remember trying to get from South San Jose to Campbell by LRT on a Saturday morning once, and right as I pulled into the Convention Center the Winchester bound train departed, leaving me stranded for 30 minutes.

accountablevta said...

The Mountain View situation is a difficult one because it only has one track leading to the station. The train needs to leave Mountain View on time so that the other train can arrive on time for people to catch the Caltrain.

The Mountain View/Winchester line has 3 single track section, plus sharing tracks with the other line on 1st Street and downtown San Jose. Overall, the operation still leaves a lot to be desired. It is hard to time one transfer because it could screw up all the other transfers and train meets.

On top of that, San Jose recently timed its traffic lights that don't give light rail the priority. Because of that, light rail can be late, even though there are no other factors that could otherwise delay trains (light rail is already 100% level boarding, thus no bike or wheelchair delays like the buses).

arcady said...

accountablevta: not quite. I've found that the LRVs generally pass each other around NASA/Bayshore. That allows at least 2 or 4 minutes for the southbound LRV to be late. I think the limiting factor then becomes the section from Diridon to Winchester, with the single track sections. Anyhow, the problem is at a higher level than that. Caltrain moved their southbound trains back 15 minutes on weekends, and it doesn't look like they told anyone, which probably broke VTA connections, and definitely completely broke connections with the Highway 17 Express. Now instead of an 8 minute transfer, you have a 53 minute wait at San Jose (I think). And I'm not sure the answer to that is consolidation, or a super-agency. I think it requires a change in the institutional culture at the transit agencies, so that rather than seeing themselves as the center of the universe, they can see themselves as small parts of a much larger overall system.

accountablevta said...

The section between San Jose Diridon and Winchester is where trains are scheduled around. That portion has two single track sections. As a result, trains have to meet somewhere around Fruitdale station, and at San Fernando station. The San Fernando station part is annoying to bus riders because no traffic can move on San Fernando street when light rail is approaching San Fernando station.

Caltrain moved the weekend schedule supposedly for weekend construction. By moving the train times, Caltrain shifted where the trains meet and where it can single track without causing more delays. So far Caltrain is not having any major construction that requires single tracking. A project to rebuild the South San Francisco station (which is where the trains meet with the old schedule) has been shelved due to high speed rail.

MB94128 said...

Re: Santa Rosa to Gilroy
There are other triples :
a) GGT - SamTrans - VTA (SLOW !);
(and if you are a weekday commuter)
b) GGT - Muni - Caltrain;
c) GGT - SamTrans - Caltrain; and
d) GGT - BART - Caltrain.
There is a double looming in the future (five to ten years) - GGT + Caltrain.

Re: Contra Costa bus agencies
I think you will find that the three smaller agencies are partly spin-offs and partly a desire for local control. My mental image of that area is split in two - East Bay (west of the Caldecott) and Far East Bay (east of the Caldecott). So AC Transit, a special district operation (Alameda - Contra Costa Transit Dist.), has been around for nearly fifty years and mainly serves the bay side of the ridge. The other three grew out of the growth of the suburbs in the late 1970s. There probably were some cost issues that made it too expensive for AC Transit to extend and expand transit service throughout Contra Costa County.

Contra Costa's Public Transit