For Bay Area transit agencies to emerge stronger from their plight, extensive changes will be required, likely including new taxes and a shift in the way commuters travel and leaders plan cities.
Experts, politicians, commuters and others interviewed for this series offered many ideas that could spur ridership and help public transit providers crawl out of budget holes. But there is doubt that the region can muster the political will to make the solutions happen.
There are deep-seated problems to overcome: The Bay Area has lagged behind the nation in boosting residents' transit options, and taxpayers are not getting nearly as many services despite what they pay.
During the past 11 years, national transit carriers beefed up service by 38 percent, compared with 16 percent in the Bay Area, according to the Transit Sustainability Project. Accounting for inflation during that time, Bay Area transit costs soared 52 percent but agencies attracted just 7 percent more riders. Meanwhile, national transit costs jumped 60 percent but ridership climbed 32 percent.
To reverse this course, several experts say land use and planning will play a key role.
Environmentalists, transit agencies and regional government bodies have lobbied for more homes, shops and amenities near train and bus centers, a concept known as transit-oriented development. The 257,000-square-foot Fruitvale Transit Village in Oakland is a shining example, but there are others in the works or standing in Pleasant Hill, Richmond and elsewhere.
The most recent government survey available, from 2000, shows those living within a half-mile of a Bay Area ferry or train station were four times more likely than others to take transit. Only 4 percent of those whose homes and jobs were more than a half-mile from a station used transit, compared with 42 percent for those with both within a half-mile.
"This is the way of the future," said Allison Brooks, chief of staff at Oakland-based Reconnecting America, which operates the Center for Transit-Oriented Development. "The trend is there, and a lot of cities want to make this happen. But the investment isn't there."
Those developments may not actually increase transit ridership, though. UC Transportation Center Director Robert Cervero, a leading transit-oriented development expert, said many transit village residents fulfill the "self selection" process, meaning they are longtime transit riders who move near a transit hub.
There are also few opportunities left to build transit villages without cities either buying out or forcing out property owners. Of the 96,614 acres of land within a half-mile of Bay Area transit stations, only 5,488 acres are vacant or underutilized, according to a Reconnecting America land analysis.
Aside from building close to hubs, some have suggested more corporate shuttles, like the one Genentech runs from some BART and Caltrain stations to its South San Francisco campus.
Although land use may be part of the solution, the case of San Francisco's Muni illustrates that financial problems can lead to higher fares and less service regardless of development choices.
Muni's bus, light rail and trolley passenger counts have held steady recently, partly because of San Francisco's "transit-first city" philosophy, said Julie Kirschbaum, service planning manager for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which oversees Muni and car travel there.
"The San Francisco system is designed so most people can get where they're going without having to make more than one transfer. Almost every destination in the city can be easily reached without a car," Kirschbaum said.
But Muni has lost $179 million in state funds in the past three years, and recently changed service to nearly half its bus routes and hiked one-way fares by 50 cents to help overcome a $129 million deficit.
Not surprisingly, most agree land-use advances will do little to soothe Bay Area transit troubles if train and bus operators can't solve their financial problems and offer convenient, affordable rides. Though an onus will fall on middle-class commuters to ditch their cars for transit, it may be up to local governments, transit agencies and taxpayers to help make that shift.
The federal government has in recent memory provided no operational support for transit agencies. The state had provided a key lift, long supplying Bay Area transit agencies with $100 million to $200 million per year until 2006. But in the past three years, the state has taken $532 million that would have gone to Bay Area transit budgets and another $189 million from the local Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
Despite the California Transit Association's pending successful lawsuit against the practice, local transit agencies expect the state to find an accounting trick to satisfy the judge's demands and keep the money in state coffers for at least the next few years.
That leaves local taxpayers to foot the bill.
Of the 12 transportation-related tax measures put on ballots in 2008 by local agencies in California, voters passed 11. The Bay Area is aiming for the November 2012 ballot for some sort of regional revenue measure designed to boost transit funds.
A group of transit officials, regional planners and outside experts called the Transit Sustainability Project are tasked with figuring out what type of measure it would be, and a gas tax of up to 10 cents has been gaining steam among some leaders. MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger calls the gas tax a carbon tax by another name, and says $4-per-gallon gas is the best thing that has happened to transit ridership.
But cash flow is only half the budget picture. The Transit Sustainability Project is also aiming to cut costs, including the possibility of merging some of the 28 transit agencies that run similar routes and pull profits away from one another.
In the past 11 years, booming labor salaries and fringe benefits have accounted for nearly three-quarters of non-inflation transit cost growth, helping to nearly double the price of operating trains and buses during that span, project officials say. By comparison, fuel and electricity expenses have accounted for just 11 percent of cost growth.
The soaring prices have resulted in unusually high costs paid by riders and taxpayers.
Bay Area transit agencies are spending $3.58 per passenger mile, far more than comparable public transportation providers in Los Angeles ($1.87), Philadelphia ($1.88), New York City ($1.68), Chicago ($1.97) and Boston ($2.38), according to the Transit Sustainability Project. Bay Area transit could save $94 million annually by adopting administrative costs on par with Los Angeles' transit system, project consultants say.
Experts and transit agencies are mostly divided into two camps: Those believing in the "if you build it, they will ride it" mentality said taxpayers should invest in infrastructure, such as rail extensions and new stations, while others lobbied instead for more efficient service. The latter may be more realistic given recent funding problems.
Because of the economic backdrop, turning around local transit troubles should prove challenging and require support from both politicians and the public, said Susan Shaheen, co-director of UC Berkeley's Transportation Sustainability Research Center.
Although the shift would be costly and time-consuming, it would be a significant one for commuters, the economy and the environment.
As U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a recent blog post: "Our future rides on public transportation."