Representatives from Bay Area regional transit agencies, including Caltrain and SamTrans, remain at odds with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission Blue Ribbon Transit Recovery Task Force over how to improve transit in the Bay Area, citing concerns about what proposed reforms mean for transit agencies.
A Feb. 1 meeting update for regional transit organizations showed that while the task force is trying to ensure regional cooperation among agencies, questions and concerns from transit agencies’ representatives remain about funding sources, local autonomy moving forward and reform during a pandemic. Formed by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, or MTC, in May, the task force is responsible for finding reform improvements to the Bay Area public transit system and recommending those changes to MTC for adoption this year.
It is developing a transformation action plan for MTC adoption in June, which would identify the actions needed to re-shape the region’s transit system, affecting the 27 regional transit organizations. The plan would provide solutions for better consolidation around unifying service, fares and schedules for Bay Area riders to increasing ridership while meeting environmental goals, according to documents from the Blue Ribbon Task Force. Problems to be addressed in the action plan include bad rider experiences due to slow or unreliable transit, a lack of consolidated response to transit issues from independent agencies, funding challenges and transit inequities for marginalized communities. Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, plans to author legislation later this year to implement task force recommendations to improve transit systems, according to a staff presentation.
For example, a near-term action under consideration is for a transit network manager position to be created with greater central control over transit initiatives and rider experience. The manager would be known as a regional transit coordinator and work on issues around organizational problems, customer experience, disparities in transit and costs and funding.
Caltrain Board Member Charles Stone, also the Belmont mayor, said transit agencies are already working hard on equity and initiatives toward greater connectivity, which he felt MTC might not be aware of or acknowledging. He was also concerned about the potential loss of local operators’ nimbleness if too many changes happened, citing local programs created by Caltrain and SamTrans to meet local riders’ needs instead of waiting for state or MTC programs. He also believed a solution had been proposed before everyone had decided on the problem.
“To the extent that this conversation becomes about wresting local control from local transportation agencies that know their communities, their costs and their budgets the best, I think the committee should be cautious and pay special heed to the general managers who really do know what they are talking about,” Stone said.
He has yet to hear where the money might come from for MTC recommended changes that impose substantial costs on regional operators.
“To the extent that the committee is going to end up making recommendations that impose substantial costs on the operators, I certainly hope that those recommendations come along with a funding source,” Stone said.
Blue Ribbon Task Force Chair Jim Spering, also an MTC commissioner, said in response to Stone that everyone would have to work together to make improvements riders throughout the Bay Area want and that there are areas that need to be changed. He also said there are no solutions that have already been decided.
“To portray it that everything is OK, I think is misleading,” Spering said.
Spering said MTC had an opportunity to make recommendations that would bring change to Bay Area transit with the help of Assemblyman Chiu.
“We have to make changes, and he’s willing to present legislation that will help deal with that problem. Hopefully, everybody on this Zoom here is going to help formulate what that legislation or what MTC’s actions are going to look like in the future,” Spering said.
Stone said a lot of good transit planning had occurred recently, citing voters in San Mateo, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties passing Measure RR, a tax increase to support Caltrain operations.
“Yes, there’s a lot of room for improvement, yes we can always do better, but we’ve been doing pretty good in a lot of ways, that’s all,” Stone said.
Representatives with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District said Stone raised valid points and concerns and asked the Blue Ribbon Task Force to consider the implications of what transit changes would mean at a local level and for clarification about the role of the proposed manager.
Members of the Blue Ribbon Task Force said its organization’s goal was to address pre-pandemic connectivity problems that riders are having. Spering hopes no one is threatened by the changes, as the Blue Ribbon Task Force wants to work with transit operators on solutions.
“Nobody’s looking at taking over your system. That is not an objective. That is not realistic, and there’s no way that can happen,” Spering said.
Blue Ribbon Task Force Member Gina Papan, also an MTC commissioner and Millbrae councilwoman, said changes and coordination improvements between transit systems should have happened long ago and that riders have been pushed aside for too long. She cited coordination between Bay Area Rapid Transit and Caltrain in Millbrae as an example.
“I represent the city of Millbrae and all the 20 cities in San Mateo County. The coordination has not been there, and we need to talk about stations as well as the trains and the buses,” she said.
Caltrain Board Member Dave Pine, also a San Mateo County supervisor, said changes given the current transit system’s fragility would be difficult and spoke about the importance of locating funding to implement change.
“But the necessity to make sure that there is some funding that comes with these new requirements I think is absolutely essential because the transit agencies are going to struggle to survive here for the next year or two. That has to be their top priority,” Pine said.
Jim Hartnett, the CEO of SamTrans and executive director of Caltrain, said his agencies use regional data to find the best solutions to connectivity and feasibility for transit systems, which he believes will be helpful going forward.
“I think part of that is going to be helpful in guiding decisions down the line,” Hartnett said.
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