Make Bay Area transit seamless as a condition of new funding

Despite our region’s long-standing support for public transit, it’s frustrating that Bay Area transit doesn’t work well for more people. Ridership was stagnant prior to the pandemic, and is now at about 70% of pre-pandemic levels — one of the weakest recoveries in the nation — creating a financial crisis for Bay Area transit agencies that threaten a future downward spiral of cuts.

The pandemic has forced us to confront two important truths about why more people don’t use transit: We don’t run enough fast reliable service to attract riders from cars, and transit is too fragmented, run by 27 agencies with little coordination and creating an inconvenient and inefficient network.

Fortunately, there is reason for optimism. After years of advocacy, there is finally a serious effort to confront both issues head on. Senators Scott Wiener and Aisha Wahab have introduced The Connect Bay Area Act (SB 1031), which would authorize a regional ballot measure for sustainable transportation funding and introduce governance reforms to integrate fragmented systems. The bill is our best hope for transit transformation.

Bay Area transit funding has historically focused on system expansion while neglecting frequency and reliability of core services. It would be analogous to a homeowner funding construction of new rooms onto their house while skimping on paying utility bills.

Across much of our region, the most cost-effective way to get more people riding is by running more buses and trains on the routes we already have — arriving every five or 10 minutes, instead of every 30 or 60 minutes.

But running more service requires operations funding — something that past ballot measures haven’t provided sufficiently. The Connect Bay Area Act, finally, will authorize a new permanent source of operations funding, eliminating forecasted deficits and supporting service enhancements.

New operations funding alone won’t be enough to attract riders — the customer experience of transit must improve, offering a seamless, easy-to-use system. Integrated fares, schedules and service have been proven to grow ridership and improve efficiency.

Seamless integration requires that one entity be in charge of leading coordination among 27 agencies. The Connect Bay Area Act empowers The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the region’s nine-county transportation authority, to act as the regional network manager for Bay Area transit, requiring coordination as a condition of funding.

Changes to MTC’s governance are needed for it to succeed and be accountable to riders. MTC’s governance is too dominated by locally elected officials and lacks sufficient expertise in transit. The Connect Bay Area Act offers the opportunity to improve this by establishing a dedicated body within MTC of expert appointees to lead regional transit policymaking.