Translink holds promise for streamlined transit

January 8, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
The Bay Area has more than two dozen transit agencies; so getting from here to there can be a hassle involving multiple tickets and fare boxes. But what if there were only one transit agency for the entire area?

Sharif Elmazati uses three different transit systems routinely, but instead of buying three different tickets, he has one card. With Translink, he always has the fare in his pocket.

"It works on the AC Transit bus that I take from Oakland and it works on BART and it works on Muni," he said.

The Translink card is like FasTrak for transit users; it makes using some of the Bay Area's many different transit systems more convenient.

So far, 82,000 cards have been issued, but that is a drop in the bucket when you consider that Muni alone logs about 700,000 rides a day.

And as of now, Translink can only be used on five of the Bay Area's 26 transit systems: AC Transit, BART, Muni, the Golden Gate Transit District and Caltrain.

It has taken 20 years to get this far and the bugs are still being worked out, as Tanya Vlach once discovered on a Caltrain trip to Palo Alto.

"On my way there I had no problem, but on my way back the conductor I dealt with didn't know about Translink cards and actually threatened to kick me off because he didn't think I had a valid fare, which I did," she said.

Translink has taken so long to roll out for the same reason it is so desperately needed -- there are an unwieldy number of transit agencies.

"We have two dozen or more transit districts with hundreds, actually thousands, of different fare policies and discounts for students and discounts for seniors and zone fares versus single fares versus monthly tickets versus transfers free versus free for that," Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission spokesperson Randy Rentschler said.

All of those differences still exist, so it is up to the Translink system to figure it out.

The idea is that someday passengers will be able to use Translink on all 26 Bay Area systems, but by then, there may not be 26.

"Right now we feel at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission that 26 transit operators is way too many, but I think one is probably way too few," Rentschler said.

The MTC is launching a study to look at potential cost-savings from consolidation.

In western Contra Costa County, WestCAT is one of the smaller agencies the MTC is looking at. The 30-year-old system started as a local provider for Hercules, Pinole and unincorporated areas, but grew to take over the bus feeder system to BART's Del Norte station. It is also the area's school bus system.

"We actually provide about twice as much service for the dollar as the larger agencies in the area; consolidation seems good on paper, but in fact it's counterproductive if you're looking for cost-savings," WestCAT General Manager Charlie Anderson said.

The MTC might be looking for cost-savings, but the customer is looking for convenience. Consolidation might just mean updating an out-dated system.

"It could mean organizationally having fewer districts, but it could also mean focusing transit on where the actual riders are today versus where they were 30 years ago," Rentschler said.

The MTC will spend two years and $2.5 million trying to find out.