|Vallejo Transit. Courtesy of munidave.|
If Bay Area transit is balkanized — and with so many operators serving a single region, one is on safe ground in saying that it is — then Solano County may be its most fragmented quarter. In San Francisco, the SFMTA’s service area includes about 800,000 residents; and in the East Bay, well over one million people call AC Transit their local provider. By contrast, six transit operators — Benicia Breeze, Dixon Readi-Ride, Fairfield-Suisun Transit, Rio Vista Delta Breeze, Vacaville City Coach, and Vallejo Transit — serve the 407,000 residents of Solano County with a combination of fixed and flex routes. It’s an arrangement of decentralized fiefdoms, consisting of small transit operators that even many longtime Bay Area residents have never heard of. These operators provide some local lifeline service within urbanized areas, as well as limited regional service that connects Solano County’s fringe cities to nodes in the region’s core transit network.
The benefit of such an arrangement is that each jurisdiction has control, and can more easily ensure that its own transit service is responsive to its residents, rather than entrusting local needs to an aloof, insensitive decision-making body. But there are also many problems with this arrangement, and they are variations on a theme that plagues Bay Area transit generally. From the perspective of the rider, fares and schedules are uncoordinated, which makes trips long, inconvenient, and expensive. Many trips of substantial length require riders to transfer, and to master the rules and customs of different transit agencies.
From the perspective of the transit provider: operations, as well as allocation of staff and transit vehicles are duplicative and inefficient, because overlapping service is needed to provide connections. A limited service range usually translates into limited ridership, and the effectiveness of governance can be hindered because decisions only have local reach. Transit operators based in smaller cities may also not have adequate resources to provide the full range of regional service that its residents would find useful. And those operators have less clout to fight for more funding.
Recognizing the drawbacks of the current arrangement, the Solano Transportation Authority (STA), which acts as the local congestion management agency, has been talking for years about streamlining Solano transit into a more seamless, less fragmented network. In 2007, the STA considered a range of alternatives about how to do just that. In June 2009, the STA rejected an alternative that could have created a single operator for the whole county. Instead, the STA settled on two less extreme alternatives as its preferred course of action:
- Consolidate Benicia Breeze and Vallejo Transit into a single operator.
- Study the consolidation of interregional service in Solano County (which includes Vallejo Transit Routes 78 and 80, as well as Fairfield-Suisun Transit Routes 30, 40 and 90) into a single operator. (Earlier, the goal was to have actually consolidated them, but the language was later tempered into a mere study.) This option also would have paratransit service be operated locally.
In the past few months, we have made progress toward realizing the first goal. This week, the Vallejo City Council is expected to approve a resolution, which would authorize Vallejo to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with both the STA and the City of the Benicia. This would establish committees and a working group for the purposes of implementing the “South Solano Transit Authority.” Benicia already approved the MOU in August 2009, as did the STA in September 2009.
The plan would consolidate Vallejo Transit and Benicia Breeze into a single agency, presumably governed by a south county Joint Powers Authority, whose bylaws have yet to be enacted. According to the current timeline, Benicia and Vallejo transit could be united by 2011, and the full consolidation plan could be implemented by 2012.
In some sense, the STA is playing it safe. Focusing on only Vallejo and Benicia is the “path of least resistance,” particularly when compared to more sweeping alternatives the STA considered in 2007 but ultimately rejected. A more ambitious plan would also have integrated Fairfield-Suisun Transit with Vallejo and Benicia into the consolidated agency, thereby bringing the majority of Solano’s population into a single transit district.
Nonetheless, there are benefits to the current plan. Vallejo and Benicia are both set off from the rest of Solano County (including the Fairfield/Suisun City urbanized area), and are situated closer to the central Bay Area. The Vallejo and Benicia service areas, while somewhat disconnected, are at least adjacent to each other in south county, and Vallejo is already a popular destination for Benicia riders. Uniting operations and governance presents an opportunity to reduce costs and overhead — as well as to increase efficiency, by basing operations out of a single transit facility and merging respective contracts with MV Transportation. The single agency could provide improved service that is more legible, and could potentially operate more service through both cities to attract higher ridership. A united agency would also be a more effective competitor for regional funding.