Advocates See Hopeful Future with Incoming MTC Chief Therese W. McMillan

Therese W. McMillan. Photo: MTC
Therese W. McMillan. Photo: MTC

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Therese McMillan will take over the helm of the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) on March 1.

From the MTC’s statement, release Wednesday:

McMillan is no stranger to the Bay Area or to MTC, having worked for 25 years as a member of the Commission staff, and for more than eight years as MTC’s deputy executive director for Policy before her 2009 appointment by then-President Barack Obama to serve as deputy administrator of the Federal Transit Administration in the U.S. Department of Transportation. McMillan subsequently served as Acting FTA administrator from March, 2014, to March, 2016, before taking the position as L.A. Metro’s planning chief in April, 2016. During the final five years of her original MTC tenure, McMillan also was an instructor of transportation funding and finance in the Transportation Management Graduate program at San Jose State University’s Mineta Transportation Institute.

“I am excited to return to the Bay Area, and to all its beauty and opportunities,” said McMillan in the prepared statement. “One of my primary goals is to make the Bay Area’s transportation and housing opportunities attainable to all people who reside across the Bay Area. Tackling this challenge will take vision. It also will require new and innovative partnerships among Bay Area communities, service providers, and leaders across government and the private sector. Working with the Commission, I will strive to lead MTC forward as an extraordinary visionary and partner.”

Streetsblog checked in with safe and livable streets advocates throughout the Bay Area to hear what they hope McMillan, who will replace Steve Heminger as ED, can accomplish. Here’s a sampling of their thoughts and recommendations:

Beaudry Koch, co-founder of Seamless Bay Area

We want the MTC ED to step up as a true regional leader. First, she should propose and commit to a bold and inspiring vision for a seamlessly-integrated, customer-oriented, outcomes-driven transportation system, and radical and direct honesty over the investments and governance reforms needed to get us there. This was sorely lacking from the prior leadership.

We think this work should start with integrating fares, schedules and wayfinding. These are the most basic “table stakes” to qualify as having a world-class transit system: a rider should be able to move across the system without being punished financially, getting stuck at transfer points, and struggling to physically find their way.

…we think the MTC ED should then turn to restructuring capital planning in the region: this should be based on regional outcomes–moving a certain number of people to destinations in a certain amount of time, for example–not just based on the preferences of local politicians and individual agencies. The previous leadership was all too often an enabler of projects with dubious regional value.

Tom Radulovich, Executive Director, Livable City

The region has over two dozen different transit agencies, and the cracks between them definitely show–fares, services, schedules, and connections are poorly coordinated between agencies, and sometimes within agencies. MTC should engage the Clipper consortium, made up of MTC and representatives of the regional transit operators, to work towards a seamless transit network for the region–coordinated fares, including eliminating transfer penalties for transit trips involving more than one agency; timed meets between lines at transit hubs; and taking the region’s lifeline transit obligations seriously by eliminating physical and temporal gaps in service to provide more equitable transit service. Whether it’s one transit agency or 26 shouldn’t matter; the goal is to make the experience seamless for the transit user. Regions around the world are able to coordinate services between multiple transit agencies, and even between public and private ones; the Bay Area can do it too.

To do what needs doing, MTC will have to overcome its historic aversion to planning. MTC has been much more comfortable in the role of banker and deal broker, but we desperately need a regional transportation plan. Stapling two dozen transit agency plans and nine county transportation plans together and calling it a regional plan hasn’t sufficed. Local governments and transit agencies have a lot of autonomy, so MTC planning must be collaborative, but it must also be rigorous, demanding public value for money from grantees, and bringing the best transportation practices to a region that is curiously backward.

Stuart Cohen, Executive Director of TransForm

Therese has her work cut out for her! One of the most urgent needs will be to help lead the charge on pushing the Committee to House the Bay Area (CASA) Compact forward.

We think there also needs to be a major focus on how we get away from widening hundreds more miles of highway in the Bay Area. With a climate catastrophe upon us and big financial shortfalls, we must look at making much better use of our existing roads instead. Luckily, MTC has already agreed to look at a seamless regional express [bus] network and that would be done by converting general purpose lanes instead of widening… It would be great if Therese can champion these out-of-the-box ideas, since the toolkit in our existing box is absolutely failing us.

Ratna Amin, SPUR’s Transportation Policy Director

We hope MTC’s new leadership will develop a compelling vision for the future of the transportation system that excites the public. Succeeding at this will require further integration of land-use planning and transportation investment. Now is the time for MTC and ABAG to not only create a newly merged governing board, but also to lead on collective challenges such as climate adaptation, fiscal sustainability, and our inequitable growth pattern.

Brian Wiedenmeier, Executive Director, San Francisco Bicycle Coalition

For too long, bicycle infrastructure projects have not gotten the attention and support they deserve regionally. We look forward to working with Therese McMillan in her new role at MTC, beginning with securing funding to bring the dream of a bicycle and pedestrian path on the Western span of the Bay Bridge to reality.

Meanwhile, advocates such as Rachel Hyden, Executive Director of The San Francisco Transit Riders, say McMillan is just the person to get it done

We’ve heard nothing but good things about Therese McMillan, including from the people she worked with at L.A. Metro. She brings with her a wealth of public transportation administration experience as well as the experience of L.A.’s Measure M. (Measure M was a benchmark public transportation funding measure which is transforming L.A.’s transit infrastructure.) We’re excited for the opportunity to work with her towards a rider-focused, integrated public transit system in San Francisco and across the Bay Area.

Jeff Tumlin, Principal at Nelson\Nygaard, agrees

She has a deep understanding of the mechanics of the region’s most powerful bureaucracy and how to partner with the federal government, even in this administration. She’s a master mechanic of the bureaucratic engine – an essential skill for tapping MTC’s potential.

She’s motivated by service, not ego, money, or positional power. The MTC director has more control over the region’s economy, quality of life, social equity, public health, CO2 emissions, air quality, and future growth patterns than anyone else.

Is there a common theme for McMillan from the advocates and analysts? It seems so, and perhaps Koch summed it up best: “You know what needs to be done, you have all the legal authority you need to get started, and we’re here to help in any way we can.”

What would you tell McMillan to focus on? Leave your answers below.

  • murphstahoe

    There can be only one.

    Full integration of fares across agencies so that payment is provider agnostic. A trip is a trip.

  • Flatlander

    I agree that this would be nice, but I don’t think it’s the panacea that it’s made out to be. Clipper already makes it super easy to move between most transit systems, and if you have autoload set up, you don’t even have to think about the payment most of the time.

  • murphstahoe

    Let’s say I want to go from Santa Rosa to the Financial District. On Golden Gate Transit commuter buses, it’s $10.40.

    If I take SMART and ferry, it’s $17.50. For what is in practice the exact same trip.

    That introduces all sorts of inefficiencies. If we price them the same, we would see the riders preferences and allocate resources to the trips riders prefer. But some riders might take the bus simply because it’s cheaper, so we keep running buses they don’t like.

    The more pernicious example is that you can take Caltrain from say, Mountain View, and when you get there you have to pay an extra $2.25 to go an additonal mile. Your per mile return for that bus trip is really low. And it’s not much less than an Uber. But if we amortized the per mile cost of the entire trip, the bus ride would basically be free, making the Uber far less interesting.

  • jonobate

    So much this. We should be pricing transit journeys by the number of miles you travel, not the number of transit systems you use during the trip.

  • Flatlander

    I agree that it’s not logical, but I’m just not sure how much of the transit market that really affects. Golden Gate Transit is what, 10,000 daily riders? In the context of Muni, BART, and AC Transit’s hundreds of thousands, it’s hard to think of that fairly niche market as the top regional priority.

    Similarly, the importance of fare integration rests on the cost-sensitivity of transit riders, Is the reason that GGT ridership is so low because of the cost? I have my doubts.

    Similarly, if there’s any way to take a bike or scooter or whatnot for that last mile trip (as in your Caltrain example), that would be cheap or free.

    So while fare integration would be nice, I think I’d rank it far behind other regional concerns.

  • Andy Chow

    On the other hand, it is not realistic not to price higher quality transit to reflect the higher cost of operations. It is a lot of loss revenue for Caltrain if Caltrain were to charge the same fare as SamTrans (as to divert long distance mainline SamTrans riders onto Caltrain).

  • murphstahoe

    You – and Andy – are rebutting my simply constructed example to ignore the overall point.

    You discuss the context of MUNI, BART, and AC Transit’s hundreds of thousands – the more potent example would of course be that a trip in SF that uses both MUNI and BART requires two fares – you could probably make the same trip only using MUNI and save the extra fare, but at great cost to your time. This is also true in the East Bay.

    I don’t care if Caltrain has a higher operation than SamTrans. In my vision, the only point of transit is to get people from point A to point B, without a car. Removing friction from the system makes these trips easier, quicker, and more intutive. This gets us more overall riders. And that’s the whole point – not revenue.

    “Well, we could have altered the system to increase ridership three fold, but it would have messed up Caltrain’s revenue structure so we melted the polar ice caps and the Caltrain line is underwater. But it seemed like the thing to do at the time”

  • murphstahoe

    In what world is it a good thing that people taking long trips make it on a slow bus instead of a fast train that already exists.

    Time is money.

  • Kevin Withers

    Anybody would be an improvement over Heminger. Beyond that, let’s all hope that MTCs problem with scope-creep gets addressed. Focus on roads and public transit. Nobody elected MTC to be any type of master-planner beyond transportation. Unelected regulators work for the people, they don’t command control/power. Develop consensus. Be humble. Less testosterone is better.

  • Flatlander

    I just think that “increase ridership threefold” is a wild exaggeration. Maybe 5%?

    Your argument rests on the idea that transit riders are heavily cost-sensitive. Muni/BART may be more common, but then we’re talking about an additional $2 or so. It’s not nothing, but it’s not in the same universe as other transportation options – driving, TNC are far more expensive and walking and biking are nearly free.

  • murphstahoe

    Your 2nd paragraph seems to make sense, by in practice I’ve found it very bizarre how cost sensitive people are with regards to transit.

    When Caltrain used to have the 8 ride passes, I would probably hear a conversation 3-4x per week where some rider was talking to their friend about whether or not they were going to buy a monthly pass. They would do all sorts of machinations with the math – “Well, if I ride 4 days per week every week, then it makes sense, otherwise it’s better to get the 8 ride passes, and usually I drive on Fridays so if there is just one day that I oversleep the train, it’s better to have 8 rides”. They would literally spend minutes of their life worrying about optimizing like 5 bucks – pre-tax mind you – over the course of a month. Then of course one day they’d forget to tag on and get a citation 🙂

    The train I would take stops at either Sunnyvale or Lawrence. Between the two of them is a zone crossing. So the monthly pass to Lawrence was like $30 more. There were people who worked within a block of Lawrence who would take their bike onto the train and get off and Sunnyvale and ride 2.5 miles to save $30 a month. Now it’s like a $67 difference and the problem has gotten more acute – there is a line of cyclists going down Evelyn. This has a bad externality in that if the zone cliff didn’t exist, most of those people would just get off at Lawrence and leave their bike at home, freeing up space in the bike car.

    The most pernicious example was the San Bruno/Millbrae crossing. San Bruno station is situated near a lot of residences. This has been fixed, but at one point there was a situation where a pass from San Bruno to say, Palo Alto, was like $60 more, and a monthly parking pass was $40. People who could simply walk to San Bruno were “Saving 20 bucks” by buying a pass from Millbrae and a parking pass, and driving to Millbrae daily.

    It’s bizarre. When you see people do these backflips to save $5 on a months worth of transit at the expense of X amount of their time, but in their car they never do the calculus that if they go to a different grocery store that’s 2 miles further from their house 10 times a month, they’ve just burned an extra $8 in gas.

    It may not make sense but this has been my observation over and over.

  • david vartanoff

    Andy, and all. Surcharging for faster transit is inherently screwing the poor. Take for example, AC Transit’s current BRT project–$216 million at last count–to provide marginally faster bus travel between BART stations because AC never got the deal Muni has which would put many of those riders on a train for most of the mileage. simply tapping a monthly pass.
    Many of us remember when SamTrans scrapped cheap, functional service to/from SFO so as not to compete w/ BART’s vastly overpriced and wrongly designed service.
    Bluntly put, as taxpayers, we could care less what color uniforms, what colors the buses/trains are painted. We all pay the lion’s share of the cost of service and mostly just want to get somewhere.

  • david vartanoff

    If we honestly did that, fares would be even more outrageous than now. BART’s latest Fare Structure white paper notes that their mileage component is nearly 50% less for the longer trips–which exacerbate maintenance costs because those runs book fewer riders to pay the discounted fares. We would be a far saner region if we recognized that despite the obsolete political boundaries (can you tell when you cross from Oakland to Emeryville to Berkeley to Albany to El Cerrito to Richmond on San Pablo Ave?) we are a large metro area with way too many people forced to commute huge distances home to work who need better coordinated transit.
    This means “cummulating” fares which would obviate the calcs referenced above, it means eliminating “zones” for precisely the reasons described, and many other rider friendly changes.
    On the agency level, ALL of the payroll/back office paper shuffling needs to be unified and single office sourced instead of having 28 (at last count)separate agencies doing the same calculations.

  • thielges

    I’m guilty of gaming Caltrain’s zone fares myself. I’m no psychologist but would guess that the reason that transit riders are more sensitive to cost is that the cost is generally up front, obvious, and we are reminded of the exact per-trip cost every day we buy a ticket or tag a Clipper.

    On the other hand the costs of driving are much more concealed. You fill the tank once a week but there’s a temporal disconnection between the cost of filling a tank and the cost of each trip. Insurance and DMV fees are paid annually and quickly forgotten. Maintenance is even worse: hardly anybody thinks of amortizing the cost of an engine overhaul across a span of driving. And crash repairs are even harder to reconcile since nobody knows what the future holds.

    Gig economy companies like Uber, Doordash, Lyft, etc. depend on their “subcontractors” not fully understanding what they pay out of their pocket. But their payments are reported immediately as each ride completes. The positive side is readily apparent but the negative side is deeply concealed. This is similar to the psychology that allows casinos to prey on gamblers: it is a big deal when you win, but nobody pays attention to the losses.

  • murphstahoe

    100

    When we were living in Healdsburg, we’d be with friends and maybe in conversation it might come up “I got this at Costco”. I’d say “I can’t afford Costco” and they’d wax on about how Costco had so many deals ” and I’d say “No, I just don’t like spending $8 on gas to go to southern Santa Rosa for something I can buy right here in town”

  • david vartanoff

    Specifically about price sensitivity. When Muni created a surcharge pass for Muni riders using BART within the city, usage dropped and has not recovered. In a more rider friendly world, there would be no surcharge, and the pass would be good at Daly City.

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