Transit Agencies Need to Get Out of the Fare Collection Business

Photo: BART
Photo: BART

From nine to nearly noon today, at BART headquarters in Oakland, the agency’s Board of Directors and staff had an impassioned discussion about raising fares and parking fees to close projected budget deficits. “Across the country, ridership is down, from four to five percent for rail, and ten percent for buses,” explained Grace Crunican, BART’s General Manager. “Gas prices are very low and ride shares may be having our lunch.”

Crunican, along with her staff, presented a breakdown of strategies, including fare increases, aimed at closing a projected budget deficit of $35 million. She wanted the BART Board to narrow down options for the staff to study and present to the public. “It’s important… to do this together and find a cohesive center,” she said. She also hoped that the board would compromise on small cuts in various areas.

If that was her goal, she didn’t meet it. “I won’t vote for a parking charge increase,” said District 2 Director Joel Keller of Contra Costa–unless it’s tied to a fare increase, he added. Keller took exception to San Francisco and Oakland-based directors who were resistant to raising the base fare, currently $1.95. “If we’re going to exempt San Franciscans from participating in the pain… Contra Costans and Alamedans who access stations through driving and have no other reasonable alternative should be exempt as well.”

D7 Director Lateefah Simon, in turn, objected to Keller’s characterization of raising the base fare as something that only protects San Franciscans. She talked about people who take BART between stops within Oakland, or between El Cerrito del Norte and Berkeley, who also pay only the base fare. She also objected to Keller’s contention that there are people who must drive to the BART stations. “As somebody who has never driven a car and lived all over the Bay Area, it’s not true.” She agreed the connecting bus service is often poor and badly coordinated, but said that the Board’s job is to help make those connections better.

The BART Board spent nearly three hours talking about fares this morning. Image: BART-TV
The BART Board spent nearly three hours talking about fares this morning. Image: BART-TV

They discussed other ways to generate revenue, such as increasing advertising in the busiest stations. They also talked about raising fares on BART’s traditional magnet-striped paper tickets, which would raise more revenue but also encourage riders to use Clipper cards, which are cheaper for BART and help speed people through fare gates.

BART staffers said if they go that route, they need to make sure every station has at least one Clipper-dispensing machine. Board President Rebecca Saltzman was concerned that one machine wouldn’t be enough in some of the largest stations, such as those on Market Street. “It’s obviously very problematic if we tell people they pay a higher fare if they don’t have Clipper and then we don’t have enough Clipper machines,” she said. Staffers also said the Clipper-dispensing machines would have to be clearly labeled to distinguish them from the regular BART ticket machines.

But Clipper cards are already available at the downtown San Francisco stations. They are dispensed from Muni’s ticket machines. Why do we need the duplication? The confusion most people have with the downtown S.F. stations isn’t about finding vending machines–it’s about figuring out which machines and fare gates are for BART, which are for Muni, and which tickets can–or cannot–be used for both.

And if all transit agencies are losing off-peak riders, as Crunican said, then other agencies will also need to adjust fares and costs. SFMTA frets about all the same fare issues. So does AC Transit, Caltrain, SamTrans, VTA; 27 different agencies in the Bay Area spend untold hours discussing, studying, and paying staff and consultants to figure out fare policy.

Streetsblog reported previously on the issues that need to be addressed as Clipper is updated, and on the need to rationalize fares throughout the Bay Area. Many advocates argue that there are too many transit agencies throughout the Bay Area, and there’s an argument that running ferries, streetcars, BART trains, and buses each requires a different skill-set. But fare collection is fare collection. It can and should be consolidated and rationalized, to the point that users don’t ever carry more than one ticket, or pay a separate fare depending on mode or what side of an arbitrary political boundary they’re on.

We don’t need 27 different boards spending so much time debating fare policies. There should only be one, and it’s arguably the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), which administers Clipper. There’s no physical reason MTC, via Clipper, can’t pool revenues and then determine how much goes to which agency according to a fixed formula.

The BART Board really only needs to have one more conversation about fare policy, and it’s the same conversation the other 26 transit agencies need to have–how to turn all aspects of fare collection over to an umbrella agency.

  • thielges

    Some of these board members sound obstructionist, creating unnecessary barriers to progress.

    Like the board member who wants to tie parking increases to fare increases simply to spread the pain around. Does he not realize that those who drive to BART are consuming more of BART’s, CalTran’s, and local municipalities resources than those who get to the station by other means? Sure, fares will ultimately rise but there’s no need to tie the two together other than political horse trading.

    Then there’s member who wants to create the barrier of installing more Clipper vending machines before raising the paper ticket fare. While more Clipper vending machines would be nice, it isn’t that hard to get a Clipper card especially for BART riders who by definition visit at least two stations per trip. You only need to acquire the card once and then you never need to use a Clipper vending machine again if you use web reload. I can’t even remember where I got my clipper card because it was so long ago. It certainly wasn’t at a BART station.

    Less barriers and dysfunction. More focus on closing the budget gaps and serving customers.

  • OaktownPRE

    Raising fares (and cutting service) is a sure fire way to make the revenue problem worse.

    How about starting with alarming the so-called emergency gates? I see people walk through them virtually every time I take BART. Seems like a no brainer that even Muni has figured out.

  • p_chazz

    Then you would have the gates going off constantly. What would that accomplish? Even if BART Police cited fare evaders, they would just have their cases dismissed because the court system is too busy.

  • Rachel H

    To increase usage (most of which would be by riders who pay their fares), why not run shorter trains more often? Convenience is key to increased transit use. This change would not be cost effective unless the trains are driverless. Let’s institute GoA4 technology on Bart by starting with the Millbrae-to-SFO pilot that BART director Robert Raburn has requested. Rather than laying off BART drivers, promote them to “supervisor” and have them oversee the automated trains. More:

  • jonobate

    A major problem with the BART board is that the geographical nature of the BART district electoral system results in directors only caring about their particular part of the system and not the system as a whole. So of course suburban directors are going to favor pushing costs onto urban riders, even if it doesn’t make fiscal or environmental sense to do so, as they don’t need the votes of those riders.

    I would love to see a five-county regional government, with the leader of that government responsible for appointing the board of directors for a regional transit agency that includes BART and Caltrain, much as the SF mayor does for SFMTA. But that would require a level of regionalism previously unheard of in the Bay Area. A simpler solution to the problem would be to have the electorate for the entire BART district vote on the same list of candidates using a ranked voting system and elect the resulting top nine to the board.

  • jonobate

    You could eliminate the fare gates and use POP officers instead, similar to Muni and Caltrain. Advantage is that you save huge amounts of money on labor by not needing an attendant at every station. You’d need to adjust the fare system; either simplify it by using fare zones (like Caltrain), or have the station origin/destination printed on tickets (like Amtrak), or go to 100% Clipper (like SMART).

    You could also take a hybrid approach where you keep the fare gates at the busy urban destination stations only, and remove them at quieter suburban origin stations. This means most people would still go through faregates at least once during their journey, and there would be staff at the busy stations to help tourists etc.

  • Driverless trains! The system can already do it. Save tremendously on labor costs and increase service/revenues

  • sebra leaves

    Disrupters are coming. No one system is going to win futures battles today. Get used to constant change or get off the wagon. You can’t expect to unleash the change monster and control it. There is no guaranteed future and the sooner our government agencies start living in the present instead of building on a shaky future bet the better off we will all be. What if BART took an expansion break for two years while the region absorbs some of the changes we are in the midst of that we can’t control? Would we need a fare hike? Could we just live in the moment for a while and see what happens? You can’t expect people to trust an unstable system.

  • bobfuss

    I have long argued that the real city is the Bay Area. And that there should be one County and not nine, and one council with a representative from each of the nine.

    The Bay Area has way too much democracy

  • Barcelona has a unified fare system and structure independent of the operators like what’s described here. Autoritat del Transport Metropolità (ATM, sort of their version of our MTC) manages Barcelona’s regional transportation and runs the fare collection system.

    Outside some special services and intercity rail, the system is zoned and the fare is the same regardless of operator. Because costs vary, ATM reimburses operators at different rates.à

  • ≖ Bring back tokens!

    (Opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my employer.)

  • jonobate

    There’s no reason to eliminate local government, but county-level boundaries are unhelpful in the Bay Area. More power should be transferred from counties to a regional 5-county or 9-county regional government, because many issues such as housing or transportation need to be solved on that level.

    California is the equivalent in population to many European countries, and even bigger in terms of area. It makes sense to add regional government for areas with a strong identity, as many European countries do. A Bay Area government would function much like the Scottish government does in the UK, devolving power and budget from its parent government (i.e. California).

  • Vooch

    Munich has a host of gov’t and even private entities sharing fares.

  • Vooch

    CALexit 2018 dude

  • kevd

    Just like in every German Verkehrsverbund.

  • Vooch

    Indeed – somehow the Federal Regional Railway, Federal Commuter Railway, the Private Railways, the city Subways, the city buses, the regional buses, the post office buses, and the city streetcars.,..

    magically all use the same fare system.

    Each little bureaucratic fiefdom somehow realizes they can make the pie bigger by sharing a common fare structure. I have no idea how it was implemented, but look at the NYC region and weep.

  • kevd

    Not to mention ferries and the occasional Schwebebahn (hanging train)!

    And such coordination is simply accepted as a fact of life, not some amazing accomplishment. There is an expectation of governmental competence in Germany that we lack here.
    Not that they don’t have their share of corruption and graft – see Willy Brandt / Berlin-Brandenburg airport. But that is a massive scandal. Here, it’s would pretty much be par for the course.

  • Vooch

    it’s also in their ski passes which are usually linked to provide a single fare across many different owners.

    Look to the difference between BART and the Munich S/U Bahn systems which both came online in 1972. BART feels creeky and beat up.

    The Munich system is by conparasion sterile, it just works.

    out of a catchment of 1.5 million people, the Munich Commuter Rail attracts 800k riders each day. BART has similar sized catchment basin and attracts less than 1/2 the riders.

    Munich is undergoing a massive expansion of its system to handle ever increasing demand. On the other hand, BART is trying to manage decline.

    It’s tragic

    2 systems created at same time in similar cities, a study in contrasts

  • bolwerk

    It sounds more like an accounting difficulty than a technical difficulty.

  • Jame

    Maybe one of the reasons that off-peak ridership is down is because the off-peak rider needs multiple fares across agencies to reach the destination. Combine that with poor frequency on the weekend and it is too annoying. Parking is generally more available and cheaper on the weekend.

  • neroden

    Single fare system in London, too, and most British cities.

    In fact this is standard worldwide. It’s even true in many US cities!

    Chicago, however, is divided into 3 systems, and NYC into 4 (and another across the border). These have heavy history and institutions behind them, but efforts have been repeatedly made to merger them.

    The SF and LA regions take the cake, with an insane number of different systems with separate fares, and seemingly no unification effort.

  • neroden

    It would be wise to merge all the counties and *some* of the cities.