Wednesday, April 08, 2009

BART, Translink and MTC


Updated as of August 3rd, 2009: BART has apparently turned on Translink for revenue service! Congratulations are in order, all around. Also, I want to make clear that I am no longer an employee of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and write this in my capacity as a private citizen.


So, as of March 23, 2009, BART has announced that it will deploy the regional Translink card on its system beginning in early June, 2009. This is after a top BART official suggested in 2008 that the Bay Area dump the contractor running the project, and basically walk away from it. Though, if you attempt to go to the BART website now to confirm that date, you've met with a much-more-vague "this summer" as the predicted timeframe for the rollout.

Either way, I'll believe it when I see it.


The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC, my employer for eight-plus years), has been working on the idea of a regional electronic fare card, one that would allow for seamless travel amongst all 22+ Bay Area transit operators, since at least the early 1990s. Since then, over $88 million (out of an estimated $100 million total project cost)* has been spent, and yet the card is not even available for use on the Bay Area's flagship regional transit operator, BART.

However, right after I first started at MTC, in 2001, I was a part of the Translink pilot program, and used the electronic fare card for my daily commute on BART for over six months. It worked fine then (and it works fine now). Indeed, BART could have (and was originally scheduled to) turn Translink on for full service in 2002; however, for political and bureaucratic reasons, they never did.

Let's take a quick look at some of those reasons.

First, there's the money that BART receives from expired magnetic tickets. When you take your BART ticket out of the faregate at the end of your trip, and there's not enough value left on it for another full BART journey, but there is still a greater-than-zero value -- and you choose to buy a new ticket rather than to recharge this ticket -- BART gets to keep the change. This has been identified as a source of tens of thousands of dollars of BART's revenue each month, so it's not insignificant to them, regardless of how a reasonable person might feel about the morality of the practice (especially combined with the fact that BART provides no easy or convenient way for riders to roll multiple small-value-tickets into one larger-value ticket).

Second, "The Float." This is the vernacular name for the money that BART has in its bank accounts between the time that a person purchases a ticket, and the time that they use up the last of the value remaining on that ticket (as well as any left-over value that never gets redeemed at all). Other transit operators also have a float. Indeed, Translink has a float. The difference is that BART has been fiercely protective of their float over the years, as it numbers in the millions of dollars at any given time, and they make a significant amount of interest off of it. Translink also has a float; the problem is that, before a rider decides which transit system in the region they're going to use their card on, the Translink float can't really be assigned to a specific operator. (Of course, this could be addressed by, say, running the system for a couple of months, figuring out the overall percentage of the total that goes to each operator on average, and assigning this portion of the Translink float to them each month. If the actual disbursement varies from the estimate, the operator would just get an adjusted amount the following month. I could set up an Excel spreadsheet to track this in about an hour -- it's not complicated at all.)

So, that leads us to reason number three -- BART upper management is not only grossly incompetent, but they tend toward the total-jerk end of the human disposition spectrum. (Not to say bad things about BART employees in general -- I have many friends and colleagues who work at BART, and they're all nice, competent, intelligent folks who try their hardest to do the right thing.) This has made negotiations with the other transit agencies in the Bay Area difficult and mostly unproductive for many years. Just a couple of anecdotes: in the wake of the New Year's Day shooting of an unarmed man in the back of the head by a BART police officer, BART's current general manager decided to side with her police chief, even after serious allegations surfaced of gross misconduct in the BART police department's handling of the shooting case. The calls for her dismissal are not unjustified -- she's just not the type of enlightened leader that we need at the top of such a major transit agency. And her predecessor, Tom Margro, was such an A-1 specimen that after he left BART, he went down to Orange County to try to help them push a toll road through San Onofre State Beach, a popular surfing spot, picnic area, campground and endangered species wildlife habitat area. Wonderful fellow, Tom. And the other top BART officials involved with the Translink issue (such as Scott Schroeder, BART's controller-treasurer, the guy who suggested walking away from Translink rather than finishing implementation of the system -- as recently as summer 2008 -- despite the hundreds of millions of taxpayer funds spent on the project already) are not any better.

This issue is slowly rising in the community consciousness of the Bay Area, as people continue to hear news stories about the coming of Translink, and yet continue to endure delay after delay as BART stalls, obfuscates, delays, obstructs and otherwise does everything that they can to put off the actual opening day of Translink on their system as long as possible. This leads the educated populace of the Bay Area to ask important questions, like: BART, "Why are you still selling EZ Rider cards when Translink will take-over this process?"

Originally (around 2000-2001), MTC funded the roughly $99 million replacement of BART's aging original fare gates (which apparently were held together by duct tape and rubber bands) with new, modern fare gates with the understanding that the new faregates would be off-the-shelf compatible with the about-to-debut Translink electronic fare card. BART, however, had other ideas. They instead picked a faregate vendor (Cubic) that was in direct competition with MTC's Translink contractor (Motorola and their subcontractors). Though Cubic made claims that their system would be fully compatible with Translink, BART officials saw to it that they would have their own proprietary smart card system (EZ Rider) up and running and available to the general public years before they allowed Translink to come online.

There as some signs, however, that not only is BART finally on the verge of pulling their collective head out of their collective you-know-where and turning this system on; but that the region is on the verge of forcing some major changes on transit operators in the Bay Area. MTC suggests that "We need to undertake a fundamental reassessment of the region's transit system to identify ways to improve its productivity." This would include tackling the "tough questions," such as "overlapping services," "multiple services" that "complicate customer access," and "inconsistent service policies." Yes -- and we're all quite fed up with those "tough questions", we've had enough, and it's well past time to start looking for real solutions. Indeed, you know that somebody may have been pushed a bit too far, when even MTC begins to ask:
Can we continue to afford to support multiple operations, especially when the result is so complicated that it discourages ridership (e.g. Night Owl Service)?

Currently, after BART shuts down around midnight, the only way to leave San Francisco using transit (like, say, when the bars close at 2am) is by catching a bus that comes once an hour, and will take you to someplace where you will most likely need to transfer to another bus -- in the middle of the night -- to reach your final destination. Neither bus takes BART cards as fare payment. And, after closing down the bar and wandering out to take transit home -- how many people exactly have any money at all left in their wallet with which to pay transit fare? Did I mention that ticket machines for these buses do not exist at the bus stops where you catch them, and they don't take credit cards?

MTC continues to ask:
Can we continue to afford to accommodate inconsistent service policies when simple policy agreements are possible (e.g., discount fare eligibility)?

...and they go on to give an example of how none of the operators can agree on the percentage discount given to seniors and the disabled, the definition of "youth", the definition of "child," or how many children are allowed to ride free per paying adult rider.

MTC then presents an alternative, based on agreeing on common objectives as the starting point for a Regional Transit Sustainability Analysis:
Common Objectives

1.Identify changes in market demand
2.Develop cost-effective changes in
how service is delivered
3.Improve service reliability and
convenience to attract new riders
4.Create effective multi-year transition
to move riders into more productive

Regional Transit Sustainability Analysis

1. Analyze the transit system as a single network, ignore
jurisdictional lines.
2. Evaluate travel markets and best options for meeting demand.
3. Identify overlapping services -does the region supply too much
service in some corridors?
4. Identify cost-effective alternatives to unproductive services with
limited demand and higher subsidies.
5. Identify infrastructure improvements to reduce travel times and
increase service reliability on high volume routes.
6. Address duplication of basic customer service functions that can
be delivered more cost-effectively through consolidation.
7. Simplify fare policies and service information to encourage
transit use.

(I might add: Merge all of the Bay Area transit operators, fire all the top management, and consolidate all of the employee positions that don't actually involve driving or maintaining a bus, train, or ferry or their right-of-way, stations and associated facilities. Use the savings to help make transit operations more sustainable and focused on providing the best service on the most-heavily-traveled routes.)

Well, that brings us full circle. MTC is now suggesting that the transit operators simplify their fare policies to encourage transit use. Fully implementing Translink on all of the transit operators, beginning NOW with BART, would be a great first step along that path -- no study required, just flip the switch and enable people to get the cards!

*Correction: I originally stated that $338 million was the amount spent on Translink to date. This is incorrect. $338 million is the total amount budgeted for Translink over the life of the RTP to the year 2035/over the next 25 years.


Jake said...

Hi Garlynn: The expenditure to date figure you identify for TransLink is grossly inaccurate. You cite MTC's system as the source for the information, but the MTC system is reporting the amount included for TransLink in the RTP, not the expenditures to date. The amount included in the RTP enables not only completion of the system on all operators, but also system operations and maintenance for the next 25 years. Otherwise, a good read. Take it easy.

Garlynn Woodsong said...

Jake, thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my blog post! Point taken about amount in the RTP vs. amount spent to date -- I didn't check that source thoroughly enough. I've corrected that figure -- does $88 million sound more accurate for YTD expenditure on Translink? (That sounds a tad low to me, but I can't find a better figure online right now...) My hope is to be able to get this story out in the open, so that maybe things will be able to improve in the future as more light is shed on the topic! Take care...

Anonymous said...

BART got its way: ERG out, Cubic in. Translink now magically works on BART, implementation in June.

Somebody needs to look into the relationship between BART and Cubic. I smell a rat.

Janis Mara said...

Garlynn, great post and terrific background! You say you would like to get this story out in the open; I'm a Bay Area reporter writing a story about the subject who would love to talk with you further, on background if necessary. You can reach me at 925 952 2671.

Ian said...


i'd be interested to know more about MTC's 'facing hard questions' about merging transit agencies together. i come from a design point-of-view and the standardization of the bay area transit rider experience is something i'm definitely interested in / might want to take part in. can you divulge more about any specific plans MTC has?

if you have time i'd appreciate your thoughts.


zeroL8on @ gmail —

Beggars Opera said...

MTC has finally "come out" and is now showing the true cost of the TransLink program in the 2035 RTP (page 103 - $408 million).

Now was that so hard?

Mark MMM

Garlynn Woodsong said...

OK, so $408 million is the total project cost... I guess it has gone up since I originally posted/corrected this post! Hey, if at some point we can just carry a Translink card in our pocket and use it for all of our transit needs in the Bay Area, with no worries or even second thoughts... maybe it will be worth it?

Anonymous said...

Garlynn: Two things: According to the statistics published in the monthly Executive Director's Report:
there are 30,000 unique users generating about 600,000 rides a month.
These numbers are kind of strange because each user would use their TransLink card 20 times a month. It's more likely that 15,000 users are using their card 40 times a month (20 working days, two trips a day), and the other 15,000 users are one time users. Using the $408 million cost figure, that's about $25,000 per user. And these weren't drivers switching to transit, just transit riders using a different form of payment.
The second issue is the disposal of the 900,000 TransLink cards originally purchased by MTC that were discontinued. That's over 12,000 pounds of toxic waste (embedded chip makes the plastic not recyclable).
Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Using one transit pass on any and all transit in the Bay Area is great but has any of you actually used TransLink, and more specifically have you ever tried to get a transaction history for your account. It is next to impossible to get this because you need to submit an email request to TransLink and then someone in the backroom is generating the report for you??? You have got to be kidding me; in this day and age with the internet evolved as it has and you can't get something simple like that. I would never use TransLink on BART if I had a choice in the matter. I hope somewhere in that $408m there's actually some money reserved to automate this whole process and users can actually do things like that on demand, in real time.

Ian said...

well, it is still in trial, so this is to be expected.

in the design world, we call it a "wizard of oz" prototype, where you just do the things that will be automated in the future, so that you don't have to invest in getting those things set up and then find that certain things are not working.

i have no doubt that in the future, the website will be much more robust and there will be many more in-person places where you can purchase and get help with a translink card.