Regional transit clinging to life 

Despite doubling the cost of riding public transportation since 1997, the Bay Area’s 28 transit systems collectively face a $25 billion projected shortfall in the next quarter-century, leaving the future of nearly every agency in question.

Unpredictable revenue sources, unsustainable cost structures and underpriced auto alternatives are the driving forces behind the dismal outlook for public transit, according to the latest annual report from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the region’s lead transit planning group. A fractured approach to public transit — provoked by separate planning policies from the Bay Area’s 28 agencies — has also contributed to the monumental problems facing the region, according to the report.

Although the MTC report pointed out a number of troubling aspects for the region’s transit operations, it specifically highlighted the abnormally high cost of running public transportation in the Bay Area.

The region’s 28 transit operators spend an average of $3.58 in subsidies per passenger, a rate that is a dollar more than Boston and nearly double that of Los Angeles. It cost more than $2 billion to manage the region’s transit network last fiscal year, but only $682 million came from farebox receipts.

Even though the agencies have increased the cost of riding transit by 52 percent — accounting for inflation — ridership in the region has grown by just 7 percent, and service has expanded just 16 percent.

The expensive and inefficient cost of running public transit — driven by poor institutional management policies and outdated infrastructure setups — combined with the economic recession of 2009 led many transit agencies to increase fares and reduce service. While that strategy may benefit the agencies in the short term, it’s a surefire way to lose passengers in the long term, according to the MTC report.

“Transit’s pressing budgetary woes may be sobering, but these longer-term indicators are truly alarming,” the report said. “If allowed to continue, these trends would eventually threaten the very viability of the Bay Area’s transit system.”

To address the critical shortfalls facing the region, the MTC is in the midst of compiling a two-year report on making the Bay Area’s transit systems more sustainable. The report will focus on redesigning transit infrastructure, containing the costs of operating budgets and figuring out new ways to get Bay Area commuters out of their cars and onto public transit.

“We declare the current transit system to be unsustainable, but we do not claim [it] is on a path of irreversible decline,” the report said. “With the stakes this high, the prospect of an unsustainable transit system is simply an unacceptable alternative. To put it in military terms, failure is not an option.”

Transit breakdown

Local agencies face budget shortfalls projected through 2033.

28 Transit systems in the Bay Area

$17 billion Projected capital budget shortfall of Bay Area transit agencies from 2009-33

$8 billion Projected operating budget shortfall of Bay Area transit agencies from 2009-33

$1 billion Annual budget shortfall of Bay Area transit agencies from 2009-33

52% Increase in transit cost (accounting for inflation) since 1997

16% Increase in transit service over same time period

7% Increase in ridership over same time period

Source: MTC


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Will Reisman

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