The ATL, part 2

Bringing lessons from Atlanta back to the Bay

This is the second of a two part exploration of The ATL, Atlanta’s new regional transit agency. In Part 1, in which we looked at how The ATL came to be, and what it may offer transit and riders in the Atlanta metro region. In this post, we’ll consider what lessons The ATL has for the Bay Area.

Highlights

  • Metro Atlanta and the San Francisco Bay Area are more similar in area and population, and share more problems stemming from a lack of world class, unified regional transit, than you might expect.

  • The ATL, Atlanta’s new regional transit agency, has several key elements that are worth considering for back home: enforcing a regional identity, operational standards and fare systems; providing a strong single authority over planning, approval, funding and construction of regional transit projects; and ensuring the governance of the authority itself balances politics with professional expertise and citizen representation.

  • Unlike The ATL, we should probably work to ensure all counties are thinking as a region and can’t easily opt out of regional initiatives.

  • We may need to go beyond sales tax ballot measures to find significant, sustainable and regionally-focused ballot measures.

The ATL: model for Bay Area regional transit governance?

The ATL is the Atlanta metro area’s solution for a lack of transit integration, poor quality service and limited coverage, among other challenges. Along with creating The ATL, the Georgia legislature made it possible for all metro counties to put new taxes on the ballot to support extending the transit network. All in all, The ATL promises unified authority, cohesive and empowered planning, a common brand, improved connectivity among services, and potential new funding streams for transit expansion. The Georgia legislature made a particular set of choices in their design of The ATL and its new funding sources: what might the relevance of those choices be for our efforts here in the Bay Area? In this post, we pick apart The ATL from the standpoint of what might work—or not—here at home.

Shared troubles

We have plenty in common with the Atlanta metro region.

  • Atlanta counties and cities have had difficulty finding the funding for regional-scale transit, struggling to sustainably resource their one rapid transit system, MARTA, since the 1970s. Don’t laugh: the Bay Area’s last major regional transit expansion (BART) took place over 60 years ago.

  • Atlanta riders suffer from a lack of coordination among agencies, leading to lengthy, frustrating commutes and fare systems that don’t match up and cost riders more than they need to. Sound familiar? Bay Area commuters also suffer from numerous failures in coordination, from a misaligned schedules at key transfer points, stations that make it hard to quickly connect between services, and fare systems that range from distance based to flat rate and are often punitive for connecting passengers.

  • Atlanta transit users make do with a lack of adequate service (in terms of coverage, frequency and speed), that singularly fails to tempt drivers off the freeways. Anyone who’s rides Caltrain to escape the 101 commute knows that the service is far from perfect, and the MTC recently announced that peak and off-peak periods on the Bay Bridge are now essentially indistinguishable.

Aside from shared suffering, let’s not forget the similarities in size—Atlanta’s 5.8 million people and 8,100 square miles very close to our own 7 million people and 7,000 square miles—and scale of transit operations—MARTA carries 500,000 riders a day, not far above BART’s 429,000. We’re not so different, really. So what might we learn from The ATL?

Learning from The ATL

For each of The ATL’s major components, we’ll ask:

  1. Should we want this? Not everything may be appropriate in both contexts.

  2. Can we do this? Some things that are easy in Atlanta may be difficult here, and vice versa.

  3. What should we be concerned about? Atlanta isn’t the only example of regional transit governance, and just because The ATL is new and exciting doesn’t mean they got it right.

The ATL will oversee a brand and operational identity spanning all agencies, vehicles and services

 The SF Bay Area is blessed with many colors, shapes and flavors of mass transit. Should one brand identity should rule them all? Atlanta thought so. Credit: Thomas Hawk, CC/Flickr

The SF Bay Area is blessed with many colors, shapes and flavors of mass transit. Should one brand identity should rule them all? Atlanta thought so. Credit: Thomas Hawk, CC/Flickr

Should we want this? Let’s not underestimate the impact on the rider experience of being able to know, and look for, one brand on any transit vehicle anywhere in a metro region. Atlantans saw value in unifying the identity of around 4 major services and 7 smaller operators; imagine what we could gain from unifying the identity and scheduling of our 7 major services plus 16 minor ones. No longer would you have to look out for different liveries, adapt to different boarding practices, and pay on different fare structures when switching from Golden Gate Transit to Muni, or BART to AC Transit. With schedules newly aligned you might even make that Caltrain connection at Millbrae instead of waiting an hour in the cold.

Can we do this? It will be no small challenge to convince more than 20 agencies to operate under the same insignia, design a similar rider experience, purchase and operate similar vehicles and so on. Which is why state legislation or some action by the MTC tying funding allocations to branding may well be required. But proponents in Georgia clearly managed to convince the most powerful agency—MARTA—that this was more opportunity than threat, since MARTA openly supported the legislation. What helped, perhaps, is that the legislation protects the right of individual agencies to continue to own operations, explicitly enables MARTA to contract outside its service area, and allows other operators to step up and operate all the new services to come.

What should we be concerned about? International examples suggest other models can work just as well. Transport for London plans, owns and operates many services, sometimes directly through a subsidiary agency, or indirectly by setting routes and services standards for outside contractors. Can The ATL use its planning and funding authority to bring multiple agencies into line? Could a similar agency for the Bay do so with larger and more opinionated agencies in tow? Time will tell. But a better ridership experience goes well beyond all vehicles sporting the same logo and riders using the same fare structure and passes.  

The ATL is empowered as the master planner, approver, and builder of all transit projects in the Atlanta metro area

 Most Bay Area planning has been focused on cities, not on truly regional transit systems. This is an SF-centric view of regional transit from 1931. Credit: Eric Fischer, CC/Flickr

Most Bay Area planning has been focused on cities, not on truly regional transit systems. This is an SF-centric view of regional transit from 1931. Credit: Eric Fischer, CC/Flickr

Should we want this? The ATL has the unique authority to approve all transit projects for the region, control of the prioritization process, primary responsibility for planning, and even has legal sanction to operate transit if it so chooses. With a similarly empowered entity, Bay Area agencies and politicians might think twice about building costly airport connectors, or prioritizing new highway bridges before additional Transbay Tube capacity. But even if less cost-effective projects occasionally got built in pursuit of geographic balance or under political pressure, we might still expect greater planning efficiencies. In San Francisco alone, the SFCTA, the SFMTA, the MTC and BART are involved in transit planning of one sort or another, and sometimes struggle to get out of each other’s way. Would it make sense to have a regional agency operate transit as well? In practice, MARTA will likely do more of the operating than The ATL, with experience and skills that The ATL lacks. We might expect BART or even Muni to play a similar role. Here, as in Atlanta, it should matter less that one or another agency operates, and more that the standards and oversight of operations are centralized.

Can we do this? If it works for Atlanta’s 13 metro counties, with a long and occasionally dark history of sabotaging regional transit, it can surely work for our 9 counties, as independent and strong-willed as they are. We’ve even done it before. BART, after all, is multi-county. But even BART suffered from the withdrawal of Marin and San Mateo counties, and there’s little guarantee that the more far-flung counties of the Bay Area would recognize the value of a regional transit agency to their car-dependent communities.

What should we be concerned about? The ATL includes an “opt-in” clause for counties, meaning that the agency can’t pitch a regional measure without individual counties signing off. And if one county doesn’t do so, The ATL can’t force them to pony up, even if the project might benefit that county. This works against unchecked regional authority, to be sure, but it ignores the long history of suburban and rural Atlanta counties refusing to fund MARTA extensions. In the Bay Area, our incomplete BART system is a reminder of our inglorious history in convincing all counties to pull together, so we’d do well to think about structures that don’t make it so easy to welch. Another concern is that the Georgia legislation preserves many planning functions for MARTA, which as the most powerful agency in the region might set them up on a collision course with The ATL planners. Here in the Bay Area, any agency would have to acknowledge the long history and considerable planning expertise of BART and the SFMTA in particular, and walk a fine line between granting autonomy while enforcing a regional approach.

The ATL includes easier ways to raise taxes for transit across all metro counties

 We're no strangers to transportation ballot measures in the Bay Area. But are they the most efficient and effective path to sustainable, long term, regional funding? Credit: Yes on Regional Measure 3, https://www.yesonrm3.com 

We're no strangers to transportation ballot measures in the Bay Area. But are they the most efficient and effective path to sustainable, long term, regional funding? Credit: Yes on Regional Measure 3, https://www.yesonrm3.com 

Should we want this? California, like Georgia, already has an initiative-based approach to ballot measures: any member of the public in California can put a measure on the ballot if they succeed in reaching a threshold of signatures, and they frequently do so (over 300 propositions have qualified for the statewide ballot since 1910). There is no doubt that signature requirements present financial hurdles for regional measures, and regional taxes in the Bay Area tend to be placed on the ballot by legislative action, adding friction to the process. But the proposition process is often criticized for leading to bad laws that the legislation can’t amend; and it may be a poor use of a regional transit agency’s time to have to make frequent runs to the legislature for major funding.

Can we do this? The Georgia legislature simply made it easier for counties to place funding measures on the ballot. There is no reason why the state legislature here couldn’t give Bay Area counties similar powers.

What should we be concerned about? Governance by ballot initiative is a very common route to funding for U.S. transit project, but it’s problematic. In addition to the cost and friction of raising money this way, it makes for ad hoc, one-shot strategies that—if a measure fails—can set back regional transit efforts for years. Reliance on this method also means transit projects are treated as financial second-class citizens. Sales tax financing can be unreliable, for one. It also lets governments off the hook from making more transit-dedicated general fund allocations, or issuing general obligation bonds that prop up many a highway project, institutionalizing the highway bias in state and local funding that we already struggle with. Given the size, complexity and urgency of many of our Bay Area transportation projects, it’s hard to see ballot measures and volatile sales tax revenues as the most efficient and effective way to raise and keep raising the money we need.

The ATL will be governed by a hybrid political-professional-citizen commission

 BART and the MTC, among other agencies, have nearly entirely elected representation. Are there other ways to govern regional agencies that depoliticize without losing accountability? Credit: SFBC / Flickr

BART and the MTC, among other agencies, have nearly entirely elected representation. Are there other ways to govern regional agencies that depoliticize without losing accountability? Credit: SFBC / Flickr

Should we want this? The ATL’s governing body will be stocked with a mix of regional politicians, agency executives, and citizen advocates elected from newly drawn commute-focused districts. This contrasts with Bay Area transit and regional governance boards that are nearly entirely elected. Experience from other regional transit agencies suggests that stocking regional transit governance with a diverse mix of politicians, professionals, advocates and citizens, can be effective in keeping the agency accountable, lining up political support for major proposals, and ensuring technically savvy decisions are made. The new “commute districts” sending citizens to The ATL commision may prove particularly valuable: cutting across traditional county lines, they could allow the region to transcend old urban vs. suburban vs. rural politics—a tantalizing prospect for the Bay Area.

Can we do this? Our two closest corollaries, BART and the MTC, have boards and commissions largely or entirely made up of elected officials. The MTC’s only truly professional commission members are non-voting. There’s no technical reason why a new agency couldn’t try a hybrid governance model, but we can probably expect resistance to trying something new.

What should we be concerned about? The composition of governing boards of regional agencies is a complex topic, which we may revisit in a future post. But it’s important not to be cookie cutter. What works for Atlanta, Toronto or London may not work well here: to be successful, any political governance model for a regional transit authority must be sensitive to California and Bay Area politics, laws, culture and history.

 Pollution over the Bay Area. Credit: Natalie McNear / Flickr.

Pollution over the Bay Area. Credit: Natalie McNear / Flickr.

The ATL is an air quality management authority, empowered to set air quality improvement targets and standards

Should we want this? Georgia does not have California’s history or aggressive and pioneering position in air quality regulation, so this is clearly a step forward for Atlanta. Here in the Bay Area, the California Air Resources Board and Air Quality Management Districts work together to regulate emissions, and partner with regional agencies like the MTC to sponsor air quality improvement programs. Air quality control comes with teeth and funding in California, and any regional transit agency would need all the leverage it could get to bring regional projects to life. As transportation takes up more and more of a share of greenhouse gas emissions, and continues to drive particulate matter pollution, this is an idea worth considering.

Can we do this? Air quality control in California is extensive, well established, and connected to federal mandates, making it hard to adjust. California air quality control has often focused more on technologies and tail pipes (that is, fuel efficiency and emissions control devices), at the expense of demand side efforts like enhancing transit systems. So change would be hard, and the political and regulatory challenges daunting.

What should we be concerned about? Air quality control efforts is California, while tremendously successful relative to the state’s original goals, are struggling to manage a very complex, multi-sector problem that implicates land use, transportation choices, industrial regulation and consumer preferences. It may be unfair to a regional transit agency to saddle it with responsibility without giving it all the tools to take action. We may be setting it up for failure: given pent-up demand for highway space, adding transit capacity without disincentivizing private vehicle use may not have the desired effects on pollution levels.

Lessons learned

The Georgia legislature did what it thought was right for Atlanta. But what seems right for the Bay?

Some provisions stand out as particularly relevant, doable and lower risk:

  • Enforcing a regional identity, operational standards and fare systems. This might make it easier for riders to affordably navigate a comfortable system wherever they are in the Bay.

  • Strong single authority over planning, approval, funding and construction of regional transit projects. This might help us enforce discipline in what gets built as well as muster the will for truly regional scale investments like the second transbay tube.

  • Ensuring the governance of the authority itself balances politics with professional expertise and citizen representation. This will help temper unrestrained political influence with professional judgment, while maintaining accountability.

Other choices are clearly an improvement on what Georgia had, but may not be all that helpful for us:

  • Making it easier for counties to opt in to self-tax for transportation projects. Something that we’re familiar with in the Bay but which on its own doesn’t solve the problem of sourcing significant, long term, sustainable funding for regional transit.

  • Allowing counties to opt out of regional transit projects if they so choose, potentially putting major multi-county projects at risk. Given our history with counties opting out of BART, it seems unwise to follow suit.

Finally, there are some provisions that may be too complex, or even unnecessary for the Bay Area: in particular,  the linkage made between The ATL and air quality enforcement.

Wrapping it up

At the end of this two-part series on The ATL, we once again applaud the work of the many advocates, specialists and legislators in Georgia who got this done. We certainly have much to learn about how Atlantans made the case to their legislature, and we’ll continue to track the new agency in years to come. If you’ve enjoyed this kind of in-depth dive into regional transit governance, stay tuned for more to come: we’ll be looking to other cities both at home and abroad, for new understand and lessons that will help us deliver seamless, world class transit to the Bay Area.

Beaudry Kock