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Bay Area transit can be a complex, costly ‘nightmare.’ The pandemic might help fix that

Mallory Moench, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

At 3:15 every weekday morning, Richard Burnett leaves his house in Vallejo for the 45-minute walk to the downtown bus station. Two buses and a train later — all run by different agencies, with different schedules and different fares racking up — he’s at his job in San Francisco an hour before clocking in.

Eight working hours later, he turns around and does the whole thing over again. He gets home by 7:30 p.m., eats and goes straight to bed.

“If you live that far, you have to do that sacrifice to make it work,” said Burnett, a customer service representative for a tech company who endures the six-hour commute because he can’t afford both a car and rent. “There’s no time to do anything else.”

Burnett, who advises the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area’s transit coordinating agency, on policies affecting low-income and disabled riders, dreams of express buses to main job centers and fares based on zones that would make traveling cheaper. But that would require what Burnett calls the “fiefdoms” of Bay Area’s 27 transit agencies — encompassing buses, cable cars, trains and ferries that stretch across nine counties — to agree on changes.

The pandemic, which created an existential crisis for Bay Area public transportation, has reignited a long-running debate over how to make the system better and who should control it. Each of the agencies now sets its own fares and schedules. Few other U.S. metropolitan areas have such vast and disjointed transit: Los Angeles County, smaller in size but larger in population, has nearly the same number of agencies, but only one county transportation authority.
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