CA: Bay Area legislator proposes combining all 27 local public transit agencies

Jan. 8, 2024
State Sen. Aisha Wahab, D- Fremont, amended an existing bill to ask the California State Transportation Agency to come up with a plan to consolidate the public transit agencies across all nine Bay Area counties. The new language replaces legislation that would have created a state program to install and maintain free electric vehicle service equipment at rest stops.

Jan. 4—A Bay Area legislator proposed legislation Wednesday to combine all of the region's 27 public transit agencies into one in the wake of ongoing financial challenges to public transportation.

State Sen. Aisha Wahab, D- Fremont, amended an existing bill to ask the California State Transportation Agency to come up with a plan to consolidate the public transit agencies across all nine Bay Area counties. The new language replaces legislation that would have created a state program to install and maintain free electric vehicle service equipment at rest stops.

"Here's the reality: it does not make sense to anyone to have 27 different public transportation agencies in nine Bay Area counties," Wahab said. "The goal is we need an independent agency to be able to look at, where are the gaps, how can we streamline, how can we make it more efficient?"

Wahab's proposal has no specific details or deadline, instead simply asking CalSTA to "develop a plan to consolidate all transit agencies that are located within the geographic jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission."

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission is a regional agency that runs the Clipper card program and coordinates how transit agencies respond to earthquakes, among other duties. In 2021, the commission's Blue Ribbon Transit Recovery Task Force published a Bay Area Transit Transformation Plan laying out a three-year plan for attracting riders back to public transit.

The plan's action items include synchronizing schedule changes across transit operators and standardizing maps.

Rebecca Long, MTC's director of legislation and public affairs, said the commission did not provide any input on Wahab's legislation but said it was dedicated to advancing policies that would attract more riders and improve their experience on public transportation.

In MTC polling conducted in October, 55% of respondents designated merging BART and Caltrain as a priority. Just over 60% said creating one regional agency responsible for setting fares, coordinating service schedules and creating consistent maps was a priority.

The idea of consolidating the 27 agencies in some form has been floated for over a decade. In 2013, two graduate students at UC Berkeley conducted a study interviewing local transit officials and found most supported some type of consolidation — such as merging all of the operators that move people in and out of San Francisco — but not combining into just one agency.

Consolidation has gained increased support as the Bay Area's public transit agencies struggle to cope with a steep decline in ridership during the pandemic.

Since 2020, transit agencies have been fighting an uphill battle to regain ridership, with some agencies havin more success than others. Muni had recovered about 70% of its pre-pandemic ridership as of September, while BART's November numbers were only 43% of what they were in 2019.

Instead, they've relied on federal and state funding to avoid service cuts. Over the summer, state lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom reached a deal to provide $5.1 billion in funding to California transit agencies over the next several years.

This October, BART Board President Janice Li called for the agency to have "real conversations" about system consolidation given their financial struggles, though BART is not actively considering consolidation at this time, according to BART spokesperson Alicia Trost.

"BART and the Bay Area Transit agencies are focused on working with the MTC to implement the Transformation Action Plan to make Bay Area transit easier to use," Trost said in a statement. "BART specifically is focused on improving safety, cleanliness, and reliability."

A 2021 report by Seamless Bay Area, a nonprofit advocating for transit reform, also called for Bay Area agencies to unite under a single authority to tackle COVID-19-induced challenges together. Their proposed options include increasing MTC's authority over transit fares and schedules, designating a lead agency among the existing transit operators or consolidating all 27 agencies.

"Having a consolidated transit agency means that systems can be administered consistently, efficiently, seamlessly, and equitably, taking advantage of potential operational economies of scale; but meanwhile respecting local communities' prerogative to tax themselves at higher rates and get more local transit in return," the report wrote.

But Seamless Bay Area noted total consolidation could pose issues given agencies' different labor contracts — a concern also identified by the 2013 UC Berkeley study.

Wahab said only consolidating a few agencies at a time would continue a piecemeal approach to public transportation, instead calling for the Bay Area transit operators to tackle issues such as safety and speed with a single vision.

"The Bay Area is very much a regional spot. You can live one place and work two, three cities away," Wahab said. "We need to start to take a look at how people can move faster throughout the region."

Wahab's legislation, Senate Bill 397, is scheduled to be heard by the Senate's Transportation Committee on Jan. 9.

Reach Megan Fan Munce: [email protected]

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