Interagency coordination

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Puget Sound's ORCA integrated fare card is one example of the many ways transit agencies can coordinate. Source: Oran Viriyinci

Introduction

A single region often has multiple transit providers. While there are probably good operational reasons for this, it can also be inefficient. Dealing with multiple agencies can also be confusing or frustrating to customers, who think of trips in terms of origins and destinations rather than operators and jurisdictional boundaries. For this reason, it is common for transit agencies to coordinate in ways that improve efficiency and service. This ranges from informal alignment of schedules to facilitate transfers all the way up to consolidation into a single agency. The Transit Cooperative Research Program’s Improving Transit Integration Among Multiple Providers, Volume I: Transit Integration Manual provides a guide to the complicated process of public transportation coordination.

Integration Basics

Types of integration

Transit agency integration can involve to a wide range of formal or informal actions. Broadly speaking, these actions can be categorized as customer-oriented (dealing with issues like service and fares) or agency-oriented (dealing with behind-the-scenes operations). The manual provides an extensive list of types of integration, including:

  • Joint equipment purchases - By joining together to purchase vehicles or other equipment, agencies can often take advantage of bulk discounts.
  • Schedule coordination - Coordinating schedules can reduce traffic by eliminating duplicate service or make transfers easier by improving timing.
  • Integrated fare systems - There are a variety of ways agencies can coordinate on fares. Setting a standard fare price across a region is a good first step, but agencies can provide an even better customer experience by using a universal fare card with free inter-agency transfers.
  • Regionalized paratransit - Operating paratransit is incredibly important, but also expensive and difficult. Small agencies can benefit from contracting out paratransit to better-equipped large agencies.
  • Consolidation - At some point, it might make sense to actually consolidate multiple agencies into a single operation, which will provide the most seamless regional transit.

Benefits

Successful transit integration comes with many benefits. This is especially true for consumers. Depending on the scale of the integration, customers could see significant improvements in transit availability (more service hours over a larger area) and in customer service (easier transfers, more intuitive fare payment, and seamless routes).

Transit agencies also stand to benefit from integration. Integration can allow for the elimination of costly duplicate service and increasing economies of scale. However, not all integration will save money. Many agencies see costs rise after integration, but this can be justified by the benefits to customers.

Challenges

Integration is a difficult process. Many things get in the way of coordination, such as mistrust, fear of losing local control, dissimilarities in operations, and disputes over costs and benefits. For integration to work, there needs to be good leadership and buy-in from all agencies. This allows for the establishment of processes to deal with inevitable disagreements. This leadership could come in the form an existing body such as an MPO if all agencies trust it, or a new body could be created.

How to Integrate

While every integration project is different, the first step is always going to be identifying and convening partners. This could be started when a regional body conducts a feasibility study or when an agency finds a new funding source.

Elements for Success

The manual identifies three elements common to most successful integration projects: an oversight board or committee, project leader, and formal goal-setting process.

  • Project leader - Given the challenges of integration, it’s important that there is one individual or organization championing it. This leader can help get the project off the ground and sustain it through setbacks. While this leader is important and should act for the entirety of the project, it’s important that the one individual/group does not monopolize the decision-making process.
  • Oversight board - If a single party has too much power the project risks being unsustainable. Bringing together representatives from all the stakeholders to make decisions will build mutual trust and produce longer-lasting results than a centralized process in which one party leads. This group should be formed at the beginning of the project and reevaluated regularly. Because one large board can be inefficient, it’s a good idea to form smaller subcommittees for specific projects.
  • Formal goal-setting process - It’s likely that different parties will have different reasons for integrating. Formally agreeing on a set of specific goals keeps the project focused and helps everyone involved benchmark success. Goals can be prioritized short- and long-term, but customer benefit should be a constant concern.
The five agencies in Oregon's CONNECTOR Alliance operate autonomously, but coordinate stops and schedules to make trip planning easier for riders. Source: CONNECTOR Alliance

Decision-Making Tools

Just showing up to meetings and talking about things is not a productive use of anyone’s time. Managing an integration project successfully requires concrete analytical tools. The manual lays out a variety of techniques that can help move the process along smoothly. A full list is available in the manual; some highlights are:

  • Evaluate best practices - Other agencies have gone through this process before, so rather than start entirely from scratch it makes sense to see how peer agencies have operated. Quantitative data are helpful, but also seek out qualitative advice from people involved with prior projects.
  • Map existing service and compare operating schedules - Simply laying out all of the agencies’ routes on a map clearly shows redundancies and helps identify locations for service hubs. Likewise, a table of service start/end times, hours/days, and headways provides a starting point for coordination.
  • Assess existing operating costs - The costs of integration are hard to model, and it’s even worse when agencies don’t have a clear picture of their current operating costs. Fully inventorying costs lets agencies know exactly where they stand going into the process.
  • Develop a coordinated service plan - In the early stages, the integration will be little more than a concept. A coordinated service plan helps make the concept a reality by modeling the impacts of the integration and laying out service changes and resource needs.
  • Conduct a legal review - Transit agencies operate in an environment full of legal barriers to change: government regulations, labor agreements, insurance policies, and more. These barriers are usually surmountable, but it is important to identify them early on.

Further Considerations

Identifying project costs is one of the hardest parts of an integration process because they can be complicated to quantify. Be sure to look at obvious costs like driver salaries, but also less obvious ones like potential reductions in administrative hours needed. These costs then can be balanced against potential benefits. There are obvious quantitative measures of success to focus on such as total ridership, cost per mile, and vehicle utilization rates, but qualitative measures like rider satisfaction are also a major reason to integrate.

Management

A variety of tools can help manage agency partnerships. Formal agreements on goals and responsibilities are important for accountability, as is continuous monitoring, reporting, and evaluation. Because each agency has its own way of doing things, standardized operating procedures can reduce conflicts between different business and operational practices. Technology can also help standardize operations. For large-scale projects, it’s helpful to bring on a neutral consultant to serve as a guide. If budgets do not allow hiring a consultant, groups like the American Public Transportation Association can be approached for advice.

Case Studies

ORCA Universal Fare Card

Short for “One Regional Card for All,” ORCA is a cooperative fare card in the Puget Sound region of Washington state. The contactless card can be used on seven transit agencies across four counties and gives free transfers within two hours on all but one (a ferry service). Integration between the agencies was first prompted by a ballot measure; the Puget Sound region has a lot of cross-county commuting and voters wanted a seamless option. ORCA was created through a slow process governed by a joint board with representatives of all agencies. Today all stakeholders view it as a success.

McAllen Central Station

McAllen, Texas is a hub for inter-jurisdictional bus travel. Just a few miles from the US-Mexico border, many of these buses are cross-border. Each bus operator had its own pickup and drop-off locations, which increased congestion and led to confusing transfers that often required walking long distances. In addition, there were minimal public facilities for riders. In 1995, the city passed a tax initiative for transit improvements. This resulted in the city launching local bus service, but also included funds for a bus station. City Hall worked with stakeholders on both sides of the border to pick a location for the new Central Station; buy-in was important because the city needed bus operators to lease space there. Today, McAllen Central Station provides a safe, amenity-rich place for riders to start and end trips and transfer between services.

Butte County B-Line

B-Line is a consolidated group of six transit providers in Butte County, California. The consolidation was prompted by the Butte County Association of Governments (BCAG), which conducted a feasibility study. The Transit Consolidation Policy Committee was then formed to guide the process. A consultant led regular meetings to educate stakeholders on the benefits of consolidation. Concerns over cost-sharing kept the project from implementation for several years, but eventually the six agencies joined into one service administered by BCAG. There has been no formal analysis of operating cost reductions, but the system has become simpler for riders.

Transit Integration Manual

Additional Reading

Goldman, J. et. al. (2015). Improving Transit Integration Among Multiple Providers, Volume II: Research Report. Transit Cooperative Research Program.

This report presents the research conducted in creating the manual, including in-depth case studies into past attempts at transit integration.