Since I arrived here in March, I have come to appreciate the delicate tapestry, make that irregularly stitched quilt, that is the Bay Area. The diversity of locales, attitudes and interest make the region fascinating, but at the same time, not entirely cohesive.
I recently learned that while LA may be a transportation nightmare, at least the place is unified, for the most part, into one municipality of 3 million souls inside one mega-county of 10 million. Standardizing something like a fare system is a snap. Want to build mass transit? The machine will get it done, no matter how egregious the cost overruns, waste, fraud and abuse.
Here in the Cities by the Bay, however, we have a rapid transit system that works on one fare system connecting three dozen other transit agencies, each with its own peculiar way of doing business.
Thanks to the unifying force of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, we now have TransLink, or so I thought until today, when I received an apologetic e-mail from the AC Transit TransLink Team:
We very much appreciate your willingness to participate in AC Transit’s TransLink pre-launch, and deeply apologize for the continuing delay in fulfilling your request for a free TransLink card.
Just as we were about to mail out 1,000 TransLink card packages, we discovered system problems on a larger-than-acceptable proportion of our bus fleet.
While we fully expect pre-launch participants to encounter minor problems, we will not deliberately subject you to major difficulties or misuse your valuable time with problems that we have already identified. Due to the number of the buses affected, we made the decision to withhold the distribution of TransLink cards until these issues are corrected. We are pushing as hard as we can for a speedy resolution, but regret that we cannot offer a firm date of when pre-launch cards will be mailed to you.
All I could think was, no Virginia, there is no such thing as TransLink. This was supposed to be a single smart-card fare system for the whole area, one that would permit the rider to get on and off of BART with just a wave of the card and do the same for every bus and trolley from Vacaville to Vista Verde, from Midway to Miramar.
What is it in 2007? It’s scheduled to “launch” on two of the area’s larger bus systems, AC Transit and Golden Gate Transit, allowing riders to make a seamless commute from, say, Newark to Novato via bus connection in the Transbay Terminal. I’m sure that there are people who do such commutes, but I’m willing to plunk down my flimsy paper $8 discount BART card to bet that 98 percent of those people drive.
But the launch will have to wait, because the apology was for delaying something called the “pre-launch,” or trial period with a small number of users to iron out kinks in the system so they don’t make many thousands of riders angry.
As it turns out, AC Transit didn’t even want to “deliberately subject” even the first 1,000 trial users to such inconvenience. The problems were noted by fewer than 100 employees of AC Transit and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, plus a few hangers-on who got some of those cards slipped to them (I’ll never divulge my source).
As it happens, I got on a bus at Oakland Airport (not AirBART, thank you very much) the day before Thanksgiving and the AC Transit driver told me “we’re not using those yet,” and urged me to take a seat, gratis. I sat down, saw I was eye-to-eye with the TransLink reader, waved it, and it happily beeped the “OK” signal. The machine was working but the driver didn’t realize it.
But the overriding problem now is that the machines aren’t working as field testing showed they were.
On Dec. 28, AC Transit staff hung out at 14th and Broadway in Oakland and checked 54 buses that stopped to find that 13 of them had some kind of problem, such as readers that wouldn’t read or were simply powered off.
“At this point we do not have a diagnosis to the point where we’re not sure if it’s hardware or software,” said AC Transit’s customer services manager, Ken Rhodes. “We don’t have a clear idea of why something is happening in the field that wasn’t happening during testing,” so the agency is working with contractor ERG Transit Systems of Concord to solve the problem.
Several transportation officials have grumbled to me that TransLink has cost way more money ($150 million) than it was supposed to ($38 million), especially considering that it’s old enough to graduate from high school and has yet to actually serve anyone besides transportation officials and an intimate cadre of journalists who write about TransLink.
Meanwhile, BART has developed its own smart card, called EZ Rider, which uses readers that BART officials say can be programmed some day to read TransLink cards, too. You see, the company that made BART’s fare gates also makes smart cards and didn’t get the TransLink contract.
So there it is, Democracy in action: Everybody continues to go their own way, nobody agrees and nothing works.
Is it possible that Iraq will get its act together sooner than our various transit systems?
Photo of TransLink reader from www.mtc.ca.gov.>