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Why Some Cities Want to Combine Transit Agencies

Chicago and San Francisco are looking to consolidate the transit agencies in their respective cities, proposals backed by state lawmakers. Advocates say such reforms could improve service for riders and make it easier for politicians to address funding issues.

A city bus stopped beside a rail car in San Francisco.
In Brief:
  • State lawmakers in Illinois and California have backed proposals to consolidate transit agencies in Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area.

  • A lack of integration across services causes headaches for riders and doesn’t serve regional transportation goals, advocates say.

  • The push for reforms coincides with efforts to help transit systems navigate dire fiscal prospects in the coming years.

  • Faced with diminished ridership and looming budget crises, many of the country’s biggest public transit systems are primed for change. Many are experimenting with new schedules and fare policies, adding or cutting back on service, or considering changes to their governance structures, and most are searching for new sources of stable funding. In two states this year, California and Illinois, lawmakers have introduced measures that could consolidate transit operations that are currently divided among separate agencies in big metro areas.

    Proposals to merge transit agencies in Chicago and San Francisco have been floating around for years. Chicago’s transit system is split between three agencies — the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, and Pace — which receive funding from a fourth agency, the Regional Transportation Authority. Transit service in the Bay Area is spread across 27 different agencies, which offer a mix of local and regional bus, trolley, subway, and rail services. Lawmakers and advocates in both places believe the fractured operations create unhelpful hurdles for riders and unnecessary layers of administration and cost, while in some cases failing to serve regional transportation goals.

    While neither bill is expected to pass this year, lawmakers hope their proposals to consolidate agencies could be a step toward providing better transportation choices in their regions.

    “We need to have a robust conversation and make major strides to achieve the regional transit system our constituents deserve — one that is integrated and commuter-centered,” Illinois state Sen. Ram Villivalam said at a recent press conference announcing the legislation.

    Assembling Transit Networks

    Modern American transit systems formed after a rash of private-operator failures in the first half of the 20th century. As big metropolitan populations suburbanized, state and local governments stepped in to offer subsidized bus and rail service within cities and to and from their outlying municipalities. While most cities established public authorities to run transit services, the structure and funding of those authorities, and the reach of service, looks a lot different from place to place.

    In the Chicago area, the CTA runs the “L” rapid-transit system and buses in the city and some suburban areas. Metra runs commuter rail between the city and suburbs, and Pace runs suburban buses. Each agency runs its own service, charges its own fares, and makes its own capital budgets. The systems are funded and overseen by the Regional Transportation Authority, which was created in the 1970s. But advocates and leaders have complained for years that the services aren’t truly coordinated. Last year, Illinois lawmakers asked the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning to create a “plan of action” that could address both the funding crisis and the coordination problems in the region’s transit operations. The agency delivered its recommendations late last year, which encouraged leaders to make changes like integrating fare policy and payments across the systems, while leaving options to either combine the agencies under one governing board or empower an overhead agency to coordinate service.

    “We want to have a seamless transportation network in our region,” says Laura Wilkison, a policy adviser at CMAP. “There is optimization to be had when you look at it from a regional standpoint.”

    Democrats in the Illinois House and Senate sponsored bills last month that incorporate some of the agency’s recommendations, like merging the agencies and increasing overall appropriations for transit operations. State Rep. Eva-Dina Delgado, who sponsored the House version of the legislation, says the bills are “conversation starters” that build on the research and community engagement that CMAP did. The bills will get hearings this summer and throughout the rest of the year. After elections this fall, the new Legislature could take up a proposal — likely combining governance reforms and new funding — next spring.

    “For me it is about the benefit to the rider,” Delgado says.

    In California, state Sens. Aisha Wahab and Scott Weiner have introduced the Connect Bay Area Act, which would require a study of the potential benefits and drawbacks of consolidating some of the region’s 27 transit agencies. The study would focus on how consolidating operations could serve riders. Seamless Bay Area, an advocacy group that backs the proposal, says it “has the potential to transform our region’s transit system into a world-class, coordinated, and widely used system that supports our mobility, housing, equity, and climate goals.”

    Both bills are combined with efforts to increase funding for transit operations, which has dropped drastically since the pandemic because of losses in fare revenue. Advocates say governance reforms can have positive benefits, but only when combined with service improvements and funding increases.

    “For us that’s a three-legged stool, and they have to be talked about together,” says Wilkison.

    27 of everything is crazy.

    Lack of Integration

    There are a number of potential drawbacks to having too many transit providers in a region, says Philip Mark Plotch, a researcher at the Eno Center for Transportation, which consulted with CMAP on the “plan of action” for transit in Chicago. All are related to a lack of coordination and regional planning. Agencies might offer redundant services on the same routes. They might compete for funding with the same elected officials. They might each have their own incentives to offer new service to a neighborhood, rather than working together to decide what kind of service makes most sense for the area.

    A lack of integration can create a number of obstacles for riders, Plotch says. Riders might have to pay multiple fares for different services, often navigating different maps and trip-planning apps, to make a single trip across their region. Agencies focused on their own operations also don’t have the same incentive to coordinate schedules with other services; integrated services can better manage riders’ transfers, for example by holding a bus at the depot when a train full of passengers is running a few minutes late. In a place like the San Francisco region, some agencies may also benefit by combining capital planning, procurement and facilities.

    “27 of everything is crazy,” Plotch says.

    Some local leaders and individual transit agencies have resisted consolidation efforts. Some leaders may feel that consolidating agencies would require a sacrifice of local transit needs in service of regional goals determined by metropolitan or state leaders. Others say that conversations about governance are simply sidestepping the critical funding issues faced by agencies. But implementing reforms may give elected leaders more confidence that the money they appropriate will be well-spent, which could benefit transit in the long run.

    “There are some people in Chicago who say the problem is just money, but I think they’re missing the point — people don’t trust you to spend it,” Plotch says. “If you’re a legislator and you don’t trust the current transit organization to operate high-quality, efficient services then you have to say, we want structural reform.”

    Delgado says that’s part of why the Illinois Legislature is considering consolidation now, as Chicago-area transit agencies are anticipating budget gaps of more than $700 million next year. “We always want to talk about reform before we talk about revenue,” Delgado says.

    Consolidation efforts can be slow to move because they are complicated, time-consuming, and don’t produce cost savings quickly enough to provide much political incentive to elected leaders, Plotch says. But once they’re done, regions don’t tend to regret it. London’s transit operations in the U.K. are run by a “mega agency with vast authority” unlike anything in the U.S., as the Eno Center described it in a series of case studies commissioned by CMAP. That agency even coordinates land use planning between different jurisdictions, and has helped improve transit service across the London metropolitan region. It’s unlikely any U.S. city could undertake a consolidation that far-reaching. But the proposals to consolidate operations in places like San Francisco and Chicago have been talked about for long enough that it’s likely some version of them will eventually be adopted, Plotch says.

    “It’s just a question of when,” he says.

    Note: A previous version of this article included a misspelling of Laura Wilkison's name. We regret the error.
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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