Funding issues may impede regional mass transit goals

(Credit: Bay Area Rapid Transit)

The regional transportation planning agency is working on reviving mass transit by making it more frequent, affordable and accessible, but officials say only an infusion of state and federal funding can ensure that goal becomes a reality.

At the BART Board of Directors meeting Jan. 12, representatives from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, an agency that plans, finances and coordinates transportation for the nine-county Bay Area, shared its plans to establish a new regional network management committee. That committee would, according to the proposed vision statement, “advance regional goals in equity, livability, climate and resiliency through a unified transit system that serves all Bay Area populations,” said Alix Bockelman, deputy executive director of policy for the commission.

There are currently 27 different transit operators in the Bay Area serving about 1.7 million riders a day, but ridership has been declining since before the pandemic and federal support has kept transit agencies on life support. That funding is expected to go away soon.

Coordinating the different agencies would allow the region to be more efficient, such as allowing the agencies to share costs, while also reducing travel times and making transit more affordable and accessible, according to Bockelman’s presentation.

Using a regional network management model would require the commission to hire three to four dedicated staff, which along with salary, benefits and other overhead, would amount to an annual cost of $1.3 to $2 million, Bockelman said. It’s not yet clear where the funding for the staff would come from, but she said they are thinking about equitable cost-sharing among the agencies involved.

Directors express concerns about funding

District 6 Director Liz Ames said the region has a lot of great ideas, but “the money doesn’t flow to transit very easily,” despite the lofty goals to address the climate crisis at the state and federal level. She said it might be a good idea to have a member from the federal government on the committee to ensure that decades of car-centric policy are truly being reformed to prioritize public mass transit.

Board President Janice Li, representing District 8, said she was concerned about the proposed 2023-24 state budget released by Gov. Gavin Newsom, “which includes nearly $6 billion in cuts that would directly affect transit improvement projects and other climate resiliency strategies.”

“I know that that is always an initial budget I’m sure MTC and BART staff are tracking very closely,” Li said. “With that said, I would like to think that there are always ways to move dollars around and there’s collaborative advocacy here that I think can bring more dollars in to specifically fund this work.”

District 3 Director Rebecca Saltzman said she would like to see some creative solutions to funding since the commission has access to a variety of funding sources while transit agencies need every cent to provide service.

District 4 Director Robert Raburn said he was particularly concerned about how “discussions about just transit survival and the fiscal cliff” may end up derailing conversations about fare integration, which refers to creating a uniform fare structure for all the transit operators. The Bay Area Fare Coordination and Integration Study found that having one pay structure can increase ridership and reduce the number of miles people travel in their cars.

“I think that we should be looking more at a way that fare integration represents how we come out of the pandemic and how we truly integrate a system that will be in place for the next 50 years so that it can be economic and cost-saving,” Raburn said.

Ridership trends and the benefits of mass transit

Broader declines in transit ridership can be attributed largely to the emergence of rideshare companies, such as Uber and Lyft, Kari Watkins, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis, said during a SciLine media briefing in October 2022. Those companies have been “taking a pretty heavy toll on transit ridership.”

“In addition to this, gas prices were hitting it,” Watkins said. “When our gas prices go down, transit ridership is going to go down. And a little bit of increases in fares on transit systems was also hitting transit ridership. In addition to that, although population and employment were up, density was not. We — our cities were already becoming less dense.”

When COVID-19 struck, that decimated ridership numbers even more for commuter rail, which is still struggling to draw riders at anywhere near the levels it was pre-pandemic, Watkins said. So far this month, daily ridership has been anywhere from 14% to 58% of baseline, which is 395,700 for weekday ridership in January, according to BART data.

“What happened during COVID was a lot of the people who rely on transit on a day-to-day basis, those critical workers, folks who were keeping our society going during the early parts of COVID — they still had to get to work,” Watkins said. “And many of those folks are bus riders as opposed to rail riders, because of the way we’ve set up these systems. And so, we saw bus ridership decline, but it was still at significant portions of what it was before COVID.”

Government programs provided crucial funding for the transit agencies during the COVID-19 pandemic, but as those funds are beginning to dwindle, transit agencies are facing a “fiscal cliff.”

Yet mass transit has a variety of benefits for people and the environment, Watkins said. Studies have found that there is less traffic congestion in cities with mass transit; it encourages people to walk and bike more, which is good for their health; and it’s the safest way to get around.

“Transit is the safest mode of transportation because of the professional drivers, because of the nature of how the services are provided, because they’re often in their own corridors with really, really high factors of safety in how those corridors are designed,” Watkins said. “Transit is the safest way that we can get around, and we see this play out in different statistics. When we look at cities where more people take transit as opposed to driving themselves, we always have lower crash rates, both internationally and across the U.S.”

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