State Senator Aisha Wahab speaking in the Sunnyvale City Hall
State Sen. Aisha Wahab speaks at the Oct. 24, 2023 Sunnyvale City Council meeting. Photo by B. Sakura Cannestra.

Transit agencies across the Bay Area are suffering from low ridership and fiscal strain. One lawmaker thinks combining them may be a solution.

State Sen. Aisha Wahab, whose district covers Sunnyvale and Milpitas, has submitted a bill asking the California State Transportation Agency to create a plan that would consolidate the Bay Area’s 27 transit agencies. She cites a need for better efficiency and more fiscal stability, and said low ridership coupled with financial losses over the past few years means it’s time for change.

“It is not cheaper, faster, safer or anything for the average rider,” Wahab told San José Spotlight. “I want to make sure that we prioritize the rider and their experience first and foremost, and I believe that with 27 agencies, there are too many chefs in the kitchen.”

The foremost problem is the region’s public transit systems are inefficient, Wahab said, pointing toward declining ridership even before COVID.

The inside of a train station in San Jose
Diridon Station in San Jose is a major transit hub for Caltrain and Amtrak. Photo by Jason Torres Iraheta.

The bill has been in flux the past few weeks. Wahab first introduced it as a gut-and-amend, only to be withdrawn a week later. Then she reintroduced on Jan 12 as Senate Bill 926. Wahab initially said she pulled the bill to have more conversations with stakeholders, such as frequent riders and transit agency representatives.

Combining local transit agencies is not a new idea. Recently, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), which oversees transportation in the Bay Area, surveyed voters on topics relating to integration and found that 73% support a more seamless transit network across the region. While MTC is charged with connecting the region’s transportation systems, local agencies are not required to adhere to the commission’s authority.

Transportation advocate Rod Diridon Sr. said a consolidated regional transit system is necessary to avoid terminal gridlock caused by relentless traffic congestion. Diridon said the best solution for riders is consolidation.

“If you have a system that goes across county boundary lines, those ought to be interregional transit agencies, or maybe even a statewide transit agency,” Diridon told San José Spotlight.

A VTA light rail train on Second Street in downtown San Jose. Photo by Joseph Geha.

Diridon, namesake of San Jose’s downtown transit hub Diridon Station, has championed the concept of cars, buses and rail working in unison across the county and region. Combining agencies would work toward this goal of interconnectivity. It would decrease redundant administrative costs and lead to a more efficient rider experience, he said.

Wahab said asking the state to help create a plan could push the conversation forward on how to best improve the fiscal health and usability for riders.

“This isn’t going to happen overnight and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to have longer, deeper discussions,” Wahab said.

Rebecca Long, MTC director of legislation and public affairs, agrees that combining agencies would be difficult. Long said the commission’s goal is to make the Bay Area’s transportation network more interconnected.

“We do think consolidation is a very challenging topic,” Long told San José Spotlight. “That’s not to say we don’t think the region would be better off with fewer operators, but trying to go from 27 to one is a very tall order.”

Throughout the COVID lockdowns, the commission developed plans to keep transit riders and operators safe and published a series of actions aiming to recover ridership lost during the pandemic.

A VTA spokesperson told San José Spotlight the agency will be asking its board of directors to oppose SB 926, citing a lack of communication from Wahab’s team and the potential disruptions consolidation might cause. The spokesperson also said in a statement that multiple agencies were formed because of uncertain funding, which pushed each agency to create a different funding mechanism.

“Safe, affordable transit service is a challenge that will not be solved by some potential consolidation,” the VTA spokesperson said. “It would replace local decision making regarding service planning, scheduling and fare structure with centralized planning far removed from local concerns.”

Long said MTC was not consulted prior to the first bill’s introduction, but the commission is working on a potential tax ballot measure in 2026 that would provide ongoing revenue and improve its ability to connect the region’s transit agencies. Polling by the commission found that a majority of residents view public transportation as important for the Bay Area, regardless of whether they ride it or not.

Diridon said any consolidation should start with a study on how it could be done, possibly by phasing the levels of integration and with public involvement. Keeping residents informed is an important step toward regaining public trust, he said.

“It’s necessary,” Diridon said. “Whether it’s the right way to do it, you figure that out after the first year of study, but it is necessary because we cannot continue with all that redundancy and a gradual erosion of transit ridership.”

Contact B. Sakura Cannestra at [email protected] or @SakuCannestra on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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