Although recent polling Friday found most Bay Area residents favor combining Caltrain and BART, the idea remains fraught with complications, with few signs of willingness from BART and Caltrain officials.
Caltrain Board Member Charles Stone, also a SamTrans board member and Belmont mayor, expressed skepticism about a Caltrain board merger with BART and instead touted an integrated system between the two agencies that led to a shared Millbrae station.
“In terms of a merger, I haven’t heard anyone from BART say they are interested in this at all,” Stone said.
The Bay Area Council, a public-policy and business advocacy organization, announced Friday polling found 83% of respondents support combining BART and Caltrain into a single integrated system, while 86% support it when told a merged system would provide better service and allow continuous rail around the Bay Area. Local organizations and transit advocacy groups have called for the two agencies to merge recently. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the regional transportation planning agency for the Bay Area, is also exploring unifying the Bay Area transit system.
Stone maintains the pragmatic challenges are insurmountable given the reality of both agencies. He cited the financial losses it took to bring BART to Millbrae, difficulty integrating different labor groups and the lack of a San Mateo County seat on the BART board, among other issues. Stone also had concerns about the wording of the polling questions and wanted to see all the data and questions released to the public for transparency.
“It’s very interesting to see it. I just don’t know if it’s very meaningful,” Stone said.
Caltrain Board Member Dave Pine, also a San Mateo County supervisor and SamTrans board member, noted that even if Caltrain and BART were interested in merging, it would require approval from SamTrans, the city and county of San Francisco and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority for governance change. Pine said Caltrain and BART were integrating and working more closely than ever on schedule to achieve more seamless service.
“I don’t know if a merger is needed to achieve these goals,” Pine said.
He also believed the polling questions used were somewhat vague and unclear on if it was asking if BART and Caltrain should be integrated or merged. Pine felt BART and Caltrain integrating, which was the phrasing used in the poll questions, differed from Caltrain merging with BART. Caltrain is currently discussing the future of governance of the agency, but Pine said an actual merger would be extremely difficult to complete. To his knowledge, there has been no discussion between the two agencies about the topic.
Rufus Jeffris, a senior vice president for communications with the Bay Area Council, said the question asked to respondents was, “would you support or oppose combining BART and Caltrain into one integrated system.” He said the organization felt combining was synonymous with a merger.
Caltrain Board Member Steve Heminger has previously suggested a merger but stopped short of supporting it Friday. Instead, he highlighted how improved integration helped both agencies. He cited the creation of the Clipper Card, an all-in-one transit card, the building of the Millbrae station and the current work toward building a BART station at the San Jose Diridon station with Caltrain. However, Heminger said the retirement announcement of Jim Hartnett, the San Mateo County Transit District CEO, provided a good opportunity to talk about consolidation. He believes the next step is for Caltrain and BART to have detailed discussions about governance to determine advantages and disadvantages for the two agencies.
Assemblymember David Chiu said in an emailed statement that Bay Area residents want to see a more integrated, intuitive transit system.
“We know regions with more integrated transit systems typically have greater transit ridership. My bill, AB 629, moves Bay Area transportation in this direction so that riders have a more reliable experience,” Chiu said.
David Canepa, a member of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, said MTC had not formally discussed a merger. He said BART had not engaged on the subject, including its board members. Canepa noted MTC had previously used funding to encourage service coordination and mergers and said he could work with MTC to find funding to help a merger.
“The challenge is to create a service that attracts as many riders as we can and doing so in the most efficient and effective management structure as possible. That BART and Caltrain could be closer partners is worth closely looking at,” Canepa said.
BART communication officials did not respond to email questions about merging with Caltrain.
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