Durham Station via Triangle Transit website

A few weeks ago in an interview with Publicola mayoral candidate Sen. Ed Murray expressed support for a proposal that periodically comes into fashion with some transit observers:  just combine anything that is related to transit into one big super agency.  No more different fare structures, schedule books, or rules, no more route duplication, the end to one agency starving while another rakes in money. Transit Utopia.

As Martin argued years ago, merging the transit agencies of our region would be a horrible idea.  All of those points still stand, but number 5 more than any other.   The political landscape of our region means that instead of more investments being made in the core area, such a reorganization would result in money being siphoned away from our productive core services to prop up unproductive geographic/political coverage ones.  It would also result in years of added delay while we build a new agency that we don’t need instead of the transit network we do.  That is not to say that all the critiques of our current situation aren’t valid, or that we are in the best of all possible transit worlds, but that a merger would in no way build us the transit system we all want.

Below the fold is an example of a third way, suggested as a starting point for more discussion.

Triangle Transit, in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, provides an intriguing case study.  While on a much smaller scale, Triangle Transit has played a similar role to that of Sound Transit here in the Puget Sound.  It runs a regional bus service (and is planning a Light Rail line) with local agencies such as Capital Area Transit (Raleigh), Durham Area Transit Authority (DATA), Chapel Hill Transit, and C-Tran (Cary) providing local service.  An interesting arrangement sprung up in 2009, when the City of Durham contracted out the running of DATA to Triangle, while maintaining ownership of all assets and control over their tax revenues.  From Triangle Transit’s About Us page:

Triangle Transit is responsible for overseeing operations, daily management, service planning and marketing.

The final approval of all routes, DATA’s operating budget and major policy decisions rests with the Durham City Council as part of its annual budget process.

Durham also maintains control over their fare structure, with Triangle Transit only making recommendations*.

Triangle Transit is not suggesting fare increases, said agency attorney Wib Gulley and regional services Director John Tallmadge. But it has presented Durham and the other systems with fare-raising schedules for consideration and sharing with the public.

Were something like this to happen here we could have one webpage, one branding, unified marking and materials, and comprehensive local and regional transit planning.  With ORCA to handle the different fare structures, almost all of the complaints levied against the fragmentation of our transit agencies would be solved without putting control of local funding in jeopardy or adding years to capital project timelines.

Thoughts?  Could such a setup work here?  If you were Transit Emperor, what transit agencies would there be and what roles would they have?

* This might not have anything to do with agency structure, but Triangle Transit charges more for its premium Express  buses, offers day passes, and some park and ride lots in the area charge drivers.

37 Replies to “Triangle Transit: A Third Way”

  1. “The final approval of all routes…rests with the Durham City Council”

    Applied to Seattle, I don’t think this would be an improvement, and would only further serve to politicize transit planning. Though the County Council periodically makes bad decisions (see: Magnolia), the current structure we have (RTTF guidelines using productivity metrics to guide planning) would be sufficient IF we didn’t allow disproportionate influence to the minority of naysayers who are far more likely to attend public meetings. Planners should plan, politicians should legislate.

    As far as unified marketing, branding, and a seamless customer experience are concerned, I’m totally on board with you.

    1. I agree. I imagine that unless you split Metro back up if we were to do something like this routing (for Metro buses) would still go through the County Council though.

      To answer the Transit Tzar question, if I could I would make it so that the respective legislative organs only get up or down votes on service plans. That would still allow for ultimate local control but not result in routing via outrage.

    2. I am a service planner for Triangle Transit. To clarify, only major service changes require approval from City Council. For the majority of changes, only the City Manager, or, more often, the Director of the Transportation Department, has to give approvals.

      Before Triangle Transit began managing DATA, City Council was making minor service planning decisions (the reasons for this are more suited to a thesis than a blog post reply). Since then, transit planning has become very de-politicized and we’ve been able to make some very tangible improvements to the system.

  2. Before you go and suggest something silly, realize that how you describe Triangle and the Research Triangle transit systems is very similar to how Sound Transit and the local systems in Puget Sound interact.

    Triangle is really more like what a regional service overlay could look like if Pierce Transit were disbanded and its components pieced out to the city of Tacoma and Sound Transit. Which considering how poor PT’s service will be come September, might not be such a bad idea.

    1. Lets not forget what happened to SCRTD as well. It was a Mega-Agency that served a bunch of different areas in LA. Riverside, Foothill Transit, etc. all spun off from the RTD, because of political squabbles. I could see the same thing happening here.

  3. I would like to see consistent local service across the county line. I guess that’s one downside to not having a mega-agency.

    But other than that, combining all five is a terrible idea. I would hate to have people in Sumner, Bonney Lake, DuPont, Puyallup, and Edgewood all having a say on the future of MY local Federal Way bus service. That kind of thing just creeps me out.

    1. How much would it really help though? Both county lines are more than ten miles from any large city. All buses meet at transit centers near the border. Changing that could go in either of two directions. One, collapse ongoing routes into one-seat rides. Two, move the transfer point to another city.

      Collapsing ongoing routes would lead to extremely long routes (Swift + 358) that would be less reliable, because any delays are magnified by the length of the route. That’s why the 174 (downtown-Federal Way) was split. An A + 500 could be a reasonable length on a low-congestion corridor. But that doesn’t require an agency merger, it just requires PT to have enough money to upgrade the 500 and merge it into the A. It’s not like Metro will say no if PT covers the expense. That won’t help the 402 though. What ridership potential or corridor demand would justify joining it to a Metro route (183?) or extending it to SeaTac?

      Moving the transfer points to neighboring cities might make some sense, but which cities and why would it be better? Should all 99 south routes meet at SeaTac because it’s the largest destination in-line? But there’s no comparable destination in 99 north. Maybe downtown Shoreline. The cities have mulled over moving the Aurora Village TC to the Shoreline P&R, but that would be just a short-distance change and it also wouldn’t require an agency merger. The only large destinations in the vicinity are Northgate and downtown Lynnwood, and both of those are too far away from 99 to be a meeting point. At best you could extend the 358 to Lynnwood TC and Swift to Northgate TC. That would actually help corridor trips, but it would be a significant expansion and overlap, not just moving the transfer point.

      1. It has always struck me a crazy that a trip from Shoreline to Lynnwood on a straight shot down Aurora requires a transfer for no other reason other than the jurisdictional boundary.

    2. Bothell would probably most benefit from consolidating the agencies, but how much would it really? Is the Snohomish part of Bothell large enough and non-single-family enough to justify extending Metro to it? Is the King part of Bothell wishing the CT routes went to all of it rather than just to the college?

      1. Bothell’s service pattern is pretty reasonable, really, as it is. Bothell is basically built around the T-junction of Highways 527 and 522; service on 527 is provided by CT and ends in Bothell along with the corridor, while service along 522 is provided by KCM and ST, continuing through. The CT 105 covers the King County portion of Bothell as much as any KCM route does.

  4. Sound Transit doesn’t really operate anything in the way of transit, except for the Tacoma streetcar.
    99% of all their services are run by the original 4 transit agencies we now have or BNSF/Amtrak. ST will have a role to play in planning and building HCT, but once the initial system and some enhancements are completed, do they suddenly become just a conduit for their tax stream going to everyone else, minus a ton of overhead?
    I’m all for the planned ‘rollback in taxes’ at some point to just that needed for operations, and let the agencies running the show, sort of… keep running the show.

    1. ST service operated by other agencies is all funded by ST’s tax stream.

      1. So why don’t we flip the branding around? All Metro service would be branded “Sound Transit.” As would all PT, Snohomish, and Everett transit.

        ST tax revenue would continue to fund the ST Express, Sounder, and Link sub-brands. The various TBAs would fund their own county services.

  5. I think I prefer some degree of what you might call competition.

    In some sense, who really knows what works and what doesn’t until the people actually use a route. Maybe it’s better served by bus, or by light rail…or by heavy rail.

    Having multiple agencies, with different technology and agendas, gets them to court the public.

    1. We know what works and doesn’t work. This is clearly an awful idea with public dollars. Do the proper studies and planning using data, then execute. It’s not rocket science.

  6. As others have pointed out, Sound Transit already contracts out operations and maintenence to Metro, PT and CT.

    I also don’t understand how you can have unified branding but different fare structures.

    You want to improve transit? Amend the County Charter to not require the County Council to sign off on every little service change. Better yet, place Metro under the authority of an appointed board with some of the members appointed by the Mayor of Seattle and the rest by the County Executive.

  7. One more piece of evidence that Ed Murray has forgotten what office he’s running for.

    The effect of a merger would be to subject transit decisions for Seattle to a much more transit-hostile (and Seattle-hostile) electorate than even the countywide one we’re dealing with now.

    If I were transit czar, I’d keep more or less the current structure, but I’d make a few changes around the edges:

    – Give interregional (both commuter and all-day) express routes, even those within the county, to Sound Transit.
    – Divide the Metro budget more formally into three subareas — East, South, and Seattle/North — and provide politically for different levels of support for each. This would also allow for closer coordination between SDOT and the Seattle/North piece of Metro.
    – Find ways to encourage more cooperation between local agencies at the edges of their service areas, such that local routes could connect adjacent ridership centers in different counties.

    1. I’m pretty sure ST will eventually be a regional transit operator similar to TransLink and Trimet. I’m sure the PSRC would like to eventually take over more city DOT power at some point also. The current alphabet soup of transportation agencies in this region doesn’t make sense.

      1. Maybe in some abstract theoretical sense more unity would be better.

        However, if unity does not in fact exist when it comes to things like consensus as to how much money should be spent on various transport modes, trying to establish unity by fiat, by establishing a single large agency, is an unworkable plan.

        In that case, it’s far better to have multiple smaller agencies whose boundaries approximate the boundaries of political consensus.

    2. I really like all of your suggested changes. I think the Sound Transit subarea model has worked great, and I’d love to apply it to Metro.

      The only other thing that I’d want to do is to find some way to make Metro less politicized. I think Sound Transit is a great model in this respect. I think we’d be a lot better off if we could make Metro’s governance more like Sound Transit, though I have absolutely no idea how we’d get there.

      1. 47hasbegun: 40/40/20 is absolutely nothing like Sound Transit’s subarea model. With Sound Transit’s model, money raised in one subarea may only be spent in that subarea. With 40/40/20, adding a service hour in Seattle required adding two service areas on the Eastside, regardless of where the money was coming from.

        The last time I looked at the numbers, it seemed like the ratio of service hours to revenue was higher in North King (Seattle/Shoreline) than in the other two subareas. So implementing subarea equity would probably mean redirecting some service hours from Seattle to the suburbs. That’s not ideal, but I think it’s a heck of a lot better than the alternative, which is to allow political decisions to determine where service hours are allocated. With the protection of subarea equity, Seattle’s service hours (and capital spending) would be guaranteed, and no amount of political wrangling could shift money from us to the Eastside.

  8. Um, no structural changes of this type could occur, per the Sound Transit bond contracts. The bondholders need protection; that’s why they were induced to buy.

  9. Vancouver has a similer system. To the transit rider, it looks like everything is run by Translink. In fact, there are a whole set of seperate agencies that run transit service in the region. Coast Mountain bus company runs most of the buses. Blue bus runs the buses in West Vancouver. The Expo and Millenium SkyTrain lines are run by one agency, while the Canada line is run by another agency. It could work in Seattle, but it would take a lot of work.

    1. How did Translink come into being? It was called BC Transit earlier but I think it was still monolithic. Are the other companies really transit agencies or just operating companies? CT delegates to First Transit, so ST-Snohomish routes are also delegated to First Transit, but First Transit is not a transit agency, it’s a subsidiary of a company that also runs school buses and Greyhound.

      A “transit agency” would seem to require the following characteristics:
      – Autonomy in selecting routes and fares, either currently or before a consolidation.
      – Being a government department. (The “agency” part.)

      Metra is a marketing umbrella under which Chicagoland’s commercial railroads coordinate their fares and ticketing. That doesn’t make the individual railroads transit agencies, although Metra itself might be.

    2. All those operating agencies running the buses and Skytrain are just subsidiaries of Translink. They are entirely under Translink’s control. The exceptions are West Vancouver Transit which, for some unknown reason, is separate, but its network is small and integrated with Translink. One of the Skytrain lines is also separate because it is operated by a private company. But it operates so frequently that there doesn’t really need to be any coordination with it and the bus system. Translink does also have some operational influence over it, but it must pay for increased service on the line.

      BC Transit was the previous government agency that ran transit in Vancouver. It is an agency of the provincial government, and it still runs transit in some smaller communities. Translink was set up in Vancouver over the regional transit system and regional road system in Vancouver to give more local control. Its board is appointed by a group of the municipal politician in its area. So Translink wasn’t created by consolidating agencies but really to make the agency more subject to local control. However, Translink is still dependent upon more senior governments for funding of capital projects and that can make it difficult to do long term planning.

      1. However, the integrated network makes transit usage in Vancouver very convenient. I am not having to have a special card and paying twice to get somewhere. I feel that would add some necessary efficiencies to reduce route duplication and provide better integration.

        If anything was taught with West Seattle, it was that service can be optimized and ridership increased. Could Metro do more of that? Does RapidRide need a bit of change on the A and B lines in order to make them more true BRT rather than a glorified local route?

      2. Yes Translink was the result of devolution rather than consolidation, but however politically difficult, the outcome is highly desirable for transit riders. An integrated fare system is essential as is integrated route planning. Having buses end at jurisdictional boundaries is just laziness.

        Translink is also responsible for some of the regional bridges and regional cycling infrastructure, so planning for replacement and expansion of road infrastructure is coupled with transit and cycling planning. The actual results are, as they are everywhere, driven by budget and senior government contribution, but at least the intention is in the right direction.

        Also, the regional distribution of service is not particularly suburb friendly. There is of course pressure to distribute service over the region, but there is also pressure to distribute service to where it will get the best ridership, and that is usually in the older cores. And because Translink gets a considerable portion of its revenue from fares (less than 50 percent, but not far from that), ridership matters.

  10. While from a riders standpoint it might make sense to have a totally unified system, politically I don’t think it’s possible. For starters, I don’t think politicians in Everett, Snohomish County, Tacoma and Pierce County want “Seattle” telling them what to do. It would require a high level of buy-in for a fully unified image to be presented, since fare policy issues would have to be decided regionally and everyone would have to follow them for it to work. I also don’t think that having a unified image would help if say, Pierce Transit wants to go out for a public vote, and all their service is branded Sound Transit. That could become confusing to the voters who won’t be able to tell who is going out for what and why.
    The thought of centralizing service planning and scheduling does have some appeal to it though. It would be possible to better integrate connections, and maybe even shift funds for services provided in other counties with centralized oversight instead of a bunch of different agencies doing their own thing. For example, if one computer software package was used to schedule all routes, you could tell it to make sure ST route X connects with KCM route Y and PT route Z in this direction, and it would make it work. Right now I’m sure it’s not that easy.
    I think a better hybrid approach would be to keep the full branding out of it, however centralize the service planning and scheduling, create a new consolidated route numbering scheme so route numbers don’t overlap), standardize bus stop design, and schedule information (layout, maps, timetables, etc.).

  11. Lots of good ideas and discussion going on. Thanks, and please keep it up. A couple of points:

    I’m not pushing for any model. It’s just that often I have noticed the discussion is do nothing v super merge. I wanted to illustrate a third option, there is of course a 4th, a 5th etc.

    Any discussion of agency reorganization needs to be done outside of funding discussions or at least after. I find ‘reformers’ who pop up whenever there is a revenue discussion being had to be suspect. Much like ‘BRT supporters’ who only show up to Rail discussions.

  12. Metro should continue to operate in King County. Sound Transit should take over all local transit service that is now provided by Pierce, Community and Everett transit while continuing to run express routes to King County, the light rail and Sounder. With all of the money being spent on the current layout could be better spent on keeping the buses on the road.

  13. I think the most important thing is to think about this from the point of view of a rider. How easy is it to get information about a trip which spans multiple transit agencies? How well do the different transit agencies work together to make such a trip possible? And then how much does such a trip cost?

    It would be nice to have some unification between the different transit websites. It can be frustrating to try to correlate schedules and maps between the different agencies. But I think the trip planners do recommend rides on other agency’s buses when it makes sense. Certainly Metro will recommend ST buses and vice versa.

    RapidRide makes a big difference for Fauntleroy Ferry riders in terms of trip planning. The frequency of service is now sufficient to simply catch any ferry and wander up to catch the next bus. It’s also easy to explain to new riders. Link provides a similar benefit to the airport. Perhaps the system doesn’t need to be unified if it is easy enough to explain.

  14. Nothing against the idea of Triangle Transit, but I used to live in the Triangle area (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) between 1995 – 1999. Frankly, at that point transit there was abysmal – service ended at 7pm, there were no published schedules or routes that I could see, few formal stops although you could get the driver to stop at whatever street you want. I had to have a car, and that’s saying a lot.

    Things could have changed there since then. Modeling their administration is fine, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Does the Triangle Area now have reasonable transit?

    1. Transit still isn’t anywhere near as good as in the Seattle area, but it’s a lot better than you describe. There’re published schedules, formal stops which show ID’s you can type into your smartphone, a website aggregating nearly all the schedules around, and transit running in some corridors until around midnight.

      However, I’d hesitate to use Durham as a model for anything around service design except limping along with a minimum of funding. While they now have two new frequent-service corridors outside Duke University, their system is almost entirely hub-and-spoke around downtown. Huge parts of the city aren’t served at all, with many more only getting once-hourly service. Take a look at their system map and weep. Granted, though, Durham has the worst transit system in the Triangle. (Well, okay, of the three main cities – Cary is worse, and Wake Forest and Hillsboro only have one circulator and one peak-hours express.)

      (Source: I lived there until a couple years ago and still travel there regularly.)

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