To Build a Seamless Transit System, Governance Reforms Must Accompany New Funding

Ian Griffiths
Oct 15, 2019 · 9 min read

A regional “Commission on Bay Area Transportation Governance and Funding”, set up by the State, is the best way of fixing Bay Area transit to create unified, world-class transit system

Massive investments in public transit are undoubtedly needed to address the Bay Area’s most pressing challenges of increasing congestion, lack of access to affordable housing, longer commutes, and rising carbon emissions. Several groups, including Faster Bay Area and Voices for Public Transportation, have been organizing for more than a year to place a major regional funding measure on the November 2020 ballot that could raise billions for transit. While the groups differ on what mechanism should be used to raise new funds, they agree that major new investment must be focused on creating a world-class, people-focused, seamless, reliable transit network.

New investment in transit could lead to truly transformational change, but only if spent effectively. And so, we must address the elephant in the room: the Bay Area has a bad record of making public transit investments that do what public transit should do — move people more quickly with fewer cars, provide access to more opportunities, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Source: Eddy Ionescu, National Transit Database

Despite approving at least $40 billion through local and regional transportation funding measures since 2000, people in the Bay Area are using transit less often, buses are slower than ever, and commute times have increased. Why should voters and transit customers believe that this time, new investment will lead to different outcomes? The Bay Area’s largest two newspapers are justifiably skeptical — they ran editorials this summer calling for governance and accountability reforms to rationalize our region’s dozens of uncoordinated transit authorities, as a prerequisite to approving new funding.

The Bay Area has more than two dozen transit operators but no overall Transit Network Manager.

An undeniable factor in the Bay Area’s declining public transit quality over the past several decades is its fragmented, ineffectual governance, split among dozens of public agencies, bound together with no common regional transit service vision, and operating in a way that is confusing and inconvenient for riders.

In contrast with the Bay Area, regions with connected, easy-to-use transit systems and growing transit use — like Vancouver, Seattle, or Frankfurt — have accountable, effective public authorities that oversee an entire region and act as a “Transit Network Manager”. These authorities strategically plan and manage a regional network made up of multiple transit operators, ensuring it is easy-to use for passengers. Transit fares, maps, and information are simple and standardized; buses travel quickly on major roads without getting stuck in traffic, and make timed connections with trains and ferries; and frequent, reliable transit routes connect all parts of the region. For transit riders, the experience is seamless.

In some regions, Transit Network Managers do not directly operate any portion of the transit system; in other cases, the Transit Network Managers may also be an Operator.

The Bay Area has no such “Transit Network Manager”, and therefore, no accountability for the overall quality and performance of the transit network. Customers pay a different fare each time they transfer between one of the region’s 27 transit agencies; schedules and routes are not coordinated; transit expansion projects are planned in isolation from one other instead of as a cohesive network, and regularly go over budget; buses carrying dozens regularly get stuck in traffic behind cars.

As long as the Bay Area continues to spend money without a clearly defined Transit Network Manager — with the appropriate authority, legislative mandate, and resources to create an integrated system — the promise of a world-class, seamless system being promoted as an outcome of a regional funding measure cannot be realized.

The Solution to this Mess: A Commission on Bay Area Transportation Governance and Funding

Seamless Bay Area has spent the past two years conducting research on international best practices and interviewing dozens of elected leaders, transit agency senior executives, and international transportation experts to develop policy solutions to create a more integrated transit system. We have sought to answer the following three questions:

  1. How should the Bay Area’s transportation institutions be structured to deliver a seamless system?
  2. What process can lead to a new governance structure?
  3. How can the process of governance reform occur in parallel with a major regional funding measure?

In response to the first question, we found remarkable alignment among transit agency staff and elected leaders alike that certain key functions of the Bay Area’s transit system, including fare and schedule coordination, network planning, quality of service standards, customer experience, branding, and major capital projects, must be planned and overseen at regional level by a Bay Area Transit Network Manager.

On the left are the activities generally cited by interviewees as the most important to be overseen by a Transit Network Manager, whereas on the right are activities which may be more appropriate to be overseen locally.

Upon finding broad consensus of the need for a Transit Network Manager, we asked in our interviews with regional leaders the obvious next question: What entity should be designated as the Bay Area’s Transit Network Manager, and take on these critical regional functions? Should it be an existing entity, such as the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC)? Should it be reformed or expanded version of one or more regional transit operators? Or should it be something else?

We also asked, what other institutional realignments or mergers would it make sense to pursue alongside the designation of a Bay Area’s Transit Network Manager, to optimize effectiveness and minimize overlap between agencies? What functions currently spread across multiple state or local agencies would be best brought together?

Not surprisingly, we received a range of responses to these questions. Some believed that MTC should be the Bay Area’s Transit Network Manager. Many others were strongly against MTC taking on this function — some citing its past failures at advancing integration, others citing its particular governance structure as barrier. Some believed some transit agency mergers could offer significant benefits; others felt that mergers were of little value, and the costs could outweigh the benefits. Many agreed there needs to be a net reduction in the number of agencies. Almost all interviewees cited that a core governance issue that must be addressed to create a world-class transit system is ensuring buses don’t get stuck in traffic on streets and roads. These streets and roads are managed by hundreds of cities, counties, and state agencies like Caltrans without a clear regional framework for transit priority.

Seamless Bay Area concluded that establishing an effective Transit Network Manager for the Bay Area with the mandate and authority to create integrated, high-quality transit network will require careful thought and engagement over time with people across the region, and will ultimately involve changing laws that will affect dozens of agencies. Because State of California laws led to the existing state of fragmentation and poor alignment between Bay Area transportation institutions, the State has a critical role to play in assisting the Bay Area in reforming and reconciling its transit governance. The Bay Area must partner with the State to fix transit.

Temporary Regional Commissions, established by the state, have been used successfully in the past in the Bay Area and in other regions to explore complex problems and develop broad, holistic solutions, including new governance structures. In 1965, thanks to activism, the State created the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) to regulate the filling of the San Francisco Bay and recommend a permanent governance structure, which has preserved and enhanced our shoreline for generations. The Greater Atlanta area, facing similar public transit challenges as the Bay Area, recently reformed its regional transportation governance as a result of 2017 Georgia legislation that created a House Commission on Transportation Governance and Funding. This bill ultimately led to the creation of a new Transit Network Manager for the Atlanta region — the ATL — in 2018.

So, to answer our second question — what process can lead to a new governance structure that has broad support — Seamless Bay Area recommends a temporary regional Commission on Bay Area Transit Governance and Funding be formed. It should be tasked with studying the collective and individual performance of all Bay Area transportation institutions and funding, and recommending a more effective transit governance system based on an assessment of what’s working and not working, and international best practices where transit use is growing.

The Commission should be required to designate a Transit Network Manager that centralizes specific network functions, like long range planning, service standards, fare policy, and branding. It should also be tasked with recommending what mergers and other institutional reorganizations would promote better mobility and access over the long term in the Bay Area.

Its recommendations must be guided by the goals of creating greater accountability, reducing bureaucracy, and fostering a regionally collaborative framework for quickly building a seamless, customer-first transit network for all. The outcome cannot simply just be another agency — it must be rationalization of the various bureaucracies and funding sources to provide better quality transit for people. The Commission should be given a clear deadline of a maximum of two years to complete its recommendations, and its primary deliverable must be a bill or a series of bills that implement the new governance system.

Based on research of effective examples in California and in other regions, Seamless Bay Area is proposing a 21-member commission, as outlined below, balancing technical expertise, citizens (including riders), and elected representatives who can efficiently turn the recommendations of the commission into legislation.

Now, to address the final question — how does this proposal for a State Commission on Transit Governance and Funding relate to a major regional funding measure in 2020?

The Bay Area does not have the luxury of time to postpone investment in our system for years while we get our governance in order. Low income people who spend hours a day and hundreds of dollars a month on long commutes cannot wait decades for relief. Scientists now predict we have less than 12 years to avert a climate catastrophe. We must “walk and chew gum” — we must pursue both governance reforms and support a major regional funding measure for transit, in parallel.

There are several ways in which a Commission could be advanced in parallel to a 2020 ballot measure; Seamless Bay Area recommends one of the following two approaches:

  • The proposed legislation, SB-278 (Beall), that will enable the nine-county regional funding measure to be placed on the ballot, and which will come before the State Legislature in 2020, could mandate the creation of the Commission.
  • A “companion” piece of legislation, separate from SB-278 — a “Seamless Transit Bill” — could be introduced in the 2020 legislative session to create the Commission, and be written in such a way that the institutional reforms and the Transit Network Manager that results from the Commission’s recommendations govern funding raised a 2020 regional funding measure

Other approaches may be possible, though seem less likely. The Governor could step in and issue an Executive Order, creating the State Commission on Bay Area Transit Governance immediately. Or, with leadership from MTC and local leaders, a commission could be created regionally without state legislation. However, in the past, purely bottom-up approaches without a clear mandate from the State have taken a very long time to get off the ground and led to minimal change from the status quo (Bay Vision 2020 from the early 1990 is a particularly cautionary tale).

While a number of paths could lead to the right outcome for the Bay Area — an accountable Transit Network Manager and the restructuring of our disjoined transit institutions to be better oriented to moving people and reducing greenhouse gas emissions — the biggest risk right now is “punting” the issue of governance reform to some future year, rather than linking to the regional funding measure we are discussing right now.

The biggest lever we have to get transit agencies, MTC, and cities around the same table to have a serious, urgent conversation about transit governance is linking new funding with reforms. A State Commission provides a forum for discussion that can be objective, non-threatening, and outcomes-oriented.

If our region can come together and save the San Francisco Bay, we are capable of fixing fragmented transit governance to create a seamless system. It will take grassroots support and bold political leadership to take on governance, but it is the right thing to do, and future generations will thank us.

Ian Griffiths is the Policy Director and Co-Founder of Seamless Bay Area, a non-profit advocating for an integrated, world class transit system, and is a participant of the Voices for Public Transportation coalition.

You can support the call for reform by signing Seamless Bay Area’s petition calling on leaders to support reforms that create a seamless transit system.

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