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.