Transit Managers Punt Fare Integration

Fare rationalization is an obvious need for the Bay Area, but managers veto MTC even studying the idea

Promoting the Clipper card at the opening of Warm Springs station a while back. We have the fare media, but what about making sense of the fares? Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Promoting the Clipper card at the opening of Warm Springs station a while back. We have the fare media, but what about making sense of the fares? Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Note: GJEL Accident Attorneys regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog California. Unless noted in the story, GJEL Accident Attorneys is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

In London, Zurich, Toronto, Paris, and a whole lot of other cities, you get one card–and more importantly, one charge–to ride transit over a given distance. There’s no need to worry about which agency runs what bus, train or ferry, or whether or not you’ll get charged a second time if you take a connecting service, because fares are based on zones and are coherent and rational.

At Monday’s nine-member Clipper Executive Board meeting at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, managers of Caltrain, BART, AC Transit, VTA, and other regional transit agencies defeated a motion to study the costs and business case for that type of fare integration in the Bay Area. Caltrain’s CEO, Jim Hartnett, said he was “uncomfortable”  because it might cost Caltrain revenue.

“This is why we should indefinitely put off a study of how much it would cost?” said Friends of Caltrain’s Adina Levin, who was at the meeting, in a phone interview with Streetsblog. “If you fear how much it would cost, all the more reason to do a business case study!”

Streetsblog listened to a recording of the meeting; it’s full of comments from commissioners such as Hartnett, BART General Manager Grace Crunican, VTA head Nuria Fernandez, and Michael Hursh of AC Transit voicing similar concerns about lost revenue and using that to justify voting against the study.

The study, which would cost $600,000 to conduct, was proposed after a workshop earlier this year on fare integration strategies. At the workshop, board members, managers of the different agencies, and representatives from cities that have benefited from universal transit passes discussed integrated fares models and how they can grow ridership and revenue. “Everyone came back from this workshop and everyone agreed the next step is to do a business case study. That doesn’t commit us to do anything, but gives us important data that we’ve never had,” said Seamless Bay Area’s Ian Griffiths, who also spoke at the meeting.

“All that the Clipper Executive Board was asked to do was request $600,000 of RM2 money put towards a business case study,” he reiterated. “This is just the first step of a process.”

But it’s a process it seems Bay Area transit managers want to make sure never starts.

Griffiths was especially disappointed in outgoing BART General Manager Crunican, who speaks frequently about the importance of customer focus, but this time joined the parochialism of her fellow managers and pushed to delay the study until at least October.

Levin tweeted this highlight from the back and forth:

Of course, to have a European-style integrated fare system, a single umbrella entity has to collect fares, based on a zone system, which are then dispersed to operators. As long as individual transit agencies continue to “lead” on fares, as Crunican called for, we will continue to have what we have now: a mess of complex, irrational fares, separately determined by the Bay Area’s 27 parochial operators.

From a SPUR report on fare integration, the status quo, and what it means for customers:

It was 9:30 p.m. and I was waiting for the bus to come outside the 19th street BART station in downtown Oakland. I noticed the woman waiting next to me had a paper transfer ticket in her hand — a rare sighting these days given the prevalence of Clipper cards. Curious, I asked her why. She explained that she usually walks to and from BART — 30 minutes each way — instead of paying a second fare for the bus and was hoping the paper transfer would get her a free ride. When the bus arrived several minutes later, with plenty of space, she got on. But when the driver explained that the paper transfer only gave her a 50-cent discount, she got off the bus and walked home. This is a scene that repeats itself over and over every day throughout the Bay Area: people making the choice not to use transit — not because it isn’t reliable or frequent enough, but simply because transit fares are confusing, intimidating, and not affordable.

“I understand the fear about the costs,” said Levin. “But that’s why you do the study…. the managers need to get what it means to use their systems as a customer, as a rider.”

“This has been an issue for a very long time. We’re concerned if we keep kicking this can, we won’t be able to impact Clipper 2,” said SPUR’s Arielle Fleisher, who authored her organization’s position paper on fare integration and is involved in a project to upgrade Clipper. “We’re going to miss this window of opportunity to incorporate fare integration… industry experts and riders want it.”

“Grace Crunican led an effort to torpedo the regional fare integration study. Jim Hartnett disagreed that fares should be ‘affordable,'” wrote Nick Josefowitz, MTC Commissioner and WETA Board member, in an email to Streetsblog.  “It was such a classic example of business-as-usual here in the Bay Area.”

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    Who are the MTA and WETA commissioners, and who are they accountable to? I don’t know how these institutions are structured or how they respond to democratically elected leaders, but it’s obvious that they need to be totally reformed before seriously considering any new transbay crossings or other capital transit projects. Giving transportation money to these clowns is about as effective as burning it! Aren’t these the same geniuses that gave us the no-so-useful transbay ‘grand central station’?

    Bay Area transit will always suck until there is serious institution reform to eliminate the massive inefficiencies. When unelected leaders of corrupt institutions seek policies that benefit only their transit organization while making transit less useful for everybody else, they should be fired and their institutions should be restructured so their mistakes can never be repeated.

    Mass transit in the Bay Area transit is a disgrace because it doesn’t work for most people, and the lack of transit integration is the primary reason it’s so god awful.

  • mx

    I don’t know how this gets done unless the legislature steps in and demands it, probably with some kind of financial backstop for the agencies to guarantee they won’t lose money.

    There’s just too much of a divide between, say, SFMTA, where 25% of the operating budget comes from fares, and Caltrain and BART, where it’s around 65-70%. With some Bay Area transit systems primarily paid (operating expenses anyway) for by taxpayers, while others are primarily paid for by riders, nobody is going to be able to agree on fare integration.

  • City Resident

    Our local transit agencies seem to be afraid of change and innovation and of truly learning from other, better integrated and functional regions and systems. Our approach to public transportation is lacking and, as exemplified by this particular issue, it inadvertently promotes automobile use and undermines public transit. Thank you for covering this and shame on local transit “leaders” for their fear of change.

  • crazyvag

    This really needs to be a regional measure, otherwise politicians will keep getting in the way.

  • david vartanoff

    Shame on the lot of them!

  • david vartanoff

    Correct. We need an amendment to the RM tax measures cutting off any agency that does not agree to fare integration.

  • Jame

    The transit managers should be forced to do a tour de transit of the Bay Area, and see if they can get it done for under $25. Maybe that will teach them some empathy for the people who actually use transit regularly. It takes me over $8 a day to get from North Oakland to Berkeley on AC transit and BART because if I were to do the bus transfers it would take 2x longer. That is pretty expensive for a short trip, lucky for me, my employer pays for my transit costs.

  • david vartanoff

    Ultimately it is turf protection–we don’t need 27 separate agencies with entirely duplicative desk jockeys, different color uniforms, different transfer policies etc. . If MTC itself had not been so completely counterproductive for decades I would support having it take over the whole process. At the very least, the payroll and similar paperwork systems should be jobbed out to a single back office operation.

  • Jeffrey Spencer

    By way of their actions, aren’t they in violation of AB32, SB375 and/or SB150 and for frustrating the efforts under AB179? According to studies by CARB, if every Californian drove 1.6 miles less per day, by 2030 Californians would reduce enough greenhouse gas emissions to meet the state’s climate goals. Seems there would be a nexus to take to court.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Well over a billion (I gave up trying to keep track many years ago) has disappeared, without trace, into the Clipper “smart” card black hole, without a single evaluation anywhere, at any time of whether it resulted in a single new regional rider, or a single dollar of cost savings.

    The system is working exactly as intended: no-bid sole-source never-ending payments of rent-seeking snake-oil-peddling vote-buying defence contractors, and zero benefit to riders, taxpayers, or the global environment.

    Just remember, folks: whenever Caltrian and BART and Muni and friends claim they need “MOAR MONEES”, it’s about making contractors and employees fat and happy, and has nothing to do with you suckers.

  • Wanderer

    Maybe some principles for approaching fare integration need to be established. A key one would be that transit agencies will be assured that their fare revenues will not decline. This would, I think, require some new money in the system, because some agencies will be losers otherwise. If it’s just a question of rearranging the current funding deck chairs some folks will fall off the deck.

  • Without agreeing with your wider points, I do agree with the specific one. I’ve always thought the agencies, and particularly Muni, would have been far better off if the Clipper money had been spent in improved service.

  • All of the cities listed at the beginning center regions where they are the politically and economically dominant city, and to a degree an impose this on their regions. The balkanized Bay Area has no such dominant power able to look at the wider interest. It is ironic that the systems listed defending the current system get far more operating money per rider than the system that, for whatever reason, is not listed as complaining (Muni, with a per-rider regional subsidy about 1/3 that of a BART rider while carrying more than twice the passengers and almost half of all public transit users in the Bay Area.)
    Most of the Bay Area’s transit agencies live in the suburbs and represent suburban interests, rather than the interests of the city where half of public transit riders live and the vast majority commute to, within, or from.
    This city resident is in fact very suspicious of proposals for regional fare structures and governance, because I fear it will become another excuse to accelerate the decades long of funding operating subsidies, and especially transit infrastructure funding, out of the city to areas where relatively few people take public transit. BART, as a key example, lives in the East Bay, and spent most of its history looking east while the core system that carried most of its passengers rotted from neglect — something both BART and the region are paying a high price for now.
    I would only vote for such a system if its headquarters were in the city, near the vast majority of its customers, and if Muni’s current funding were a guaranteed floor. Along those lines, I think Wander has an excellent proposal in another post, and probably the only real way forward of guaranteeing each agency its current funding as a floor. I could live with that even though it means locking in place the decades of transfers of funding of Muni, and to a lesser degree AC, to fund empty busses in distant, low-density suburbs.

  • I agree. See my separate post.

  • Michael Escobar
  • Michael Escobar

    Each local agency is beholden to its own local stakeholders. You can’t create a single mega-agency as long as residents want to retain local control and keep pretending that local control somehow benefits them. Personally I doubt that the “payroll and similar paperwork systems” constitute a large part of agency budgets and headcount, but even if they did, outsourcing them to a “single back office operation” wouldn’t address the big pain points everyone has pointed out here: fare integration and schedule synchronization. What I want is to arrive on Caltrain at Millbrae and walk across the platform to a BART train that immediately departs, and when I arrive at Civic Center, walk up one flight of stairs to Muni and immediately board a train (which is currently prevented by metal bars). Centralizing clerical overhead or “back office” operations won’t get this done.

  • I think Wanderer in another post to this thread has hit on the minimum requirement for moving forward. Guaranteeing each agency no less than their current funding addresses the single issue that causes the most resistance.

  • david vartanoff

    I take your point that the back office stuff is a small part.
    You are spot on about changing routes at Millbrae, Civic, and other places where it is both inconvenient and overly expensive. I am even more annoyed that as Jame points out, we have the Hobson’s choice of paying double or wasting time because the subway and buses compete.

  • Michael Escobar

    Transit operators charge fares because they are supposed to recover (a part of) their operating costs from their passengers. Shouldn’t any fare model prioritize accurately capturing the passenger’s share of cost (farebox recovery ratio), and secondly prioritize ease of administration? If so, the idea of guaranteeing each agency a revenue floor as a condition of moving to a new fare model is nonsense. In moving to a new model, it shouldn’t matter if an individual agency “loses out” while another agency “gains”. None of our agencies have a high farebox ratio in the first place. As long as the model makes our regional system easier to use, ridership should increase, so in the long run all the agencies will be better off. It sounds like it would be a tough sell to convince Southern California legislators that they ought to appropriate state money in order to guarantee that Caltrain or any other particular Bay Area agency won’t see a fall in farebox revenue as a result of a new regional fare system. This agency parochialism sounds like exactly the kind of thing that a regional transit coordinating body should fight against.

  • david vartanoff

    The basis of public transit is maximum mobility for all residents. Farebox recovery is a leftover from the era of transit as a private sector enterprise. Service should be based on market demand and since it will NEVER self support on fares, the real issue is proper subsidy funding from the areas that benefit from the service.

  • enguy

    Fare integration (while nice) isn’t necessary to have a usable system. Just up the coast, Seattle’s ORCA cardORCA card works just like Clipper across many modes, transit agencies (state, county, city, and regional), and fare types. The important thing is that they allow free transfers between agencies if you use the card, so the only thing you have to know when riding is the cost of the most expensive fare during your transfer window.

  • Rainforester

    What the hell is libertarian lobby shop SPUR doing involved with this?

    And, no, the fares are not affordable. We can’t figure out two sets of fares? That is totally ridiculous!

    Transit should be very inexpensive or free. Prices are extortionate, and the 50-cent cash surcharge is totally outrageous!

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