Friday, August 29, 2008

The TransLink Travesty

For a conservative, I do some fairly left-leaning things from time to time. Mass transit is a particular interest of mine, and so I was pretty excited a year and a half ago when I applied for a TransLink card.

The card is supposed to be a universal fare-card for all the Bay Area's transit agencies. When I got it, the promise was that I'd be able to use it on Bart and Muni in "a couple of months." As with all things governmental, the truth has been far, far worse.

In case you're not familiar with TransLink, here's a link to the relevant Wikipedia page. And here's a nice quote to give you a primer on the system and its problems:
Translink has become something of a boondoggle of governance. The project as initially undertaken in 1993 had a projected capital cost of just $4 million and even in its current conception was expected to cost just $30 million. Since then, however, costs have ballooned tenfold -- current total capital costs are estimated at $338 million. In addition, schedule delays have added up to more than a decade. In 1998, Translink was to be available on all transit agencies by 2001, but today (2008) is operational on just two, and not expected to be available regionwide until 2010.

I guess I should feel lucky that the system even works on AC Transit (one of the two agencies that supports it). Unfortunately, as one of the thousands of people who commute into San Francisco for work, what would really help me would be something that worked on both sides of the bay.

Shockingly, Bart decided to introduce its own competing system, called EZ-Rider, a couple years ago. Apparently the second system is the result of a "bureaucratic turf dispute." Great.

One of my favorite elements of this governmental fraud is the fact that, so far as I can tell, every single bus in San Francisco has either one or two TransLink terminals installed. Unfortunately, every single one of them in non-operational.

The only place the card works is in the Muni subway system, and down there I've had station agents repeatedly try to refuse me entrance and refuse to give me bus transfers. "You don't need a transfer," one said. Good thing I made him give me one, as there was a cop at the other end of my journey checking tickets. Bet he's never even heard of TransLink.

I've tried to use TransLink repeatedly when getting on buses. It's a fun joke with the bus drivers. I ask things like, "To your knowledge, has this card ever worked on your bus?"

The driver usually gives me a perplexed or angry look: "No. They're still testing it."

Perhaps a brief aside into business theory is in order. Everyone knows that the goal of business is to turn a profit. What many don't know is how a business determines whether a given profit is "enough" to justify entering a new line of business.

The novice businessman might think that any profit is enough to justify a business expansion. But this isn't right, because in private industry there is a cost associated with buying the stuff required to enter that business. This is the business' "cost of capital," and it depends on market factors such as interest rates and the value of the business' equity capital.

Typically, a business will not invest money in a new operation unless it expects that operation to return a pretty high annual increment on that investment. Twenty percent is a common number.

So, you can see why it's a complete disaster -- from a business standpoint -- to install a bunch of hardware in buses and then completely fail to use it for years on end. Whatever return Muni might have generated from my fares from using the TransLink card is lost each day they keep the machines turned off. Muni has already paid for the machines, so they're losing money every day on this debacle.

In the business world, management would push to get those machines generating revenue as quickly as possible. Not so in the world of government. Because the government doesn't even know how to measure its cost of capital, it is fundamentally unresponsive when faced with a situation like this. And why should they? They can just set the fare to $1.37 or whatever and tell me it's my fault when I don't have enough pennies with me.

This whole situation is pretty humorous when you think about it. I'm being lectured on television to keep my tires inflated to save gas -- and rightly so. But if the leftists in charge of every Bay Area transit agency care so much about CO2 emissions and oil imports, why did they purposely construct a situation where they'd trick me into getting this card then make sure it only works on two of the region's numerous systems?

In other words, shouldn't these "leaders" want to set up a system that makes it as easy as possible for me to use mass transit? I guess the answer lies somewhere in between Al Gore's Gulfstream jet and his Tennessee mansion.

Leftists have their hearts in the right place, but they are incompetent human beings. It's commonly said that those who can't do, teach. Well, I'm not sure how much of a failure one must be to get involved in governance, but it must be pretty monumental.

Incidentally, here is the list of transit agencies that supposedly will support TransLink someday. I won't hold my breath:

Alameda/Oakland Ferry, American Canyon Transit, Benicia Breeze, Cloverdale Transit, County Connection, Dixon Transit, Fairfield-Suisun Transit, Healdsburg In-City Transit, Petaluma Transit, Rio Vista Delta Breeze, SamTrans, Santa Clara VTA, Santa Rosa CityBus, Sonoma County Transit, Tri Delta Transit, Union City Transit, Vacaville City Coach, Vallejo Transit, VINE (Napa County), WestCAT, WHEELS and Yountville Shuttle.


  1. Just out of curiosity, I clicked on Bart's EZ-Rider page, thinking maybe I'd get that. Here's what I found:


    Thank you for your interest in our EZ Rider card. We have temporarily suspended registration as we prepare to add the ability to pay for parking as a new feature to the EZ Rider card in response to requests from our passengers. Please check the website in October as we will reopen the registration process once we have added the parking payment feature.


    Real impressive. What are these people, retarded? I mean, their explanation is completely nonsensical and embarrassing. I'm glad I don't work at Bart. If I did I'd probably just kill myself.

  2. I've never had a problem using Translink on Muni (including buses) since the July 15th official opening. I just wave my Translink card at the cops checking transfers, and have never had a problem.

  3. What bus lines? The ones that go through the tunnels, or some other ones? I've tried it on several above-ground bus lines with zero luck.

    Also, thanks for the info about waving the card at the cops. The thing is, you can't know if you're going to get a ticket ahead of time, since the people in the booths know next to nothing about TransLink.

  4. But, which buses? This isn't just an idle question. I'd like to know where I can use this stupid card.

  5. I've been refused on several Muni buses this summer.

    I just buckle and have both the EZ-Card and Translink, assuming they'll never have Translink for BART or anything else.

  6. I've heard mixed reviews about Translink on Muni - many people have had luck using the card but many others haven't.

    I'm hoping they'll sort out their issues though, just as AC Transit initially did. I signed up as one of the first test users and for the first few months it was pretty unreliable. Some buses had Translink equipment, others didn't. Some bus drivers just waived you through if the machines weren't working, and others forced you to pay or get off. But after about 6 months, it started to run smoothly, and now I never have any problems.

    Maybe by the end of the year, problems will subside on Muni too.

  7. I've been using Translink quite successfully on the Muni buses #1 and #27. I haven't tried any other lines or systems.

  8. It works on the #1 bus now? I tried it about a month ago and the driver told me it has never worked.

  9. I used my Translink all the time on MUNI through the end of 2007. As of January 1, 2008, the booth attendants at MUNI underground told me they were no longer allowed to issue me transfers. I took my regular trip a couple times, waving the Translink card at the bus drivers, who allowed me on, but that didn't seem like a payment method I wanted to rely on. So I'm back to paying cash fare, with my Translink card gathering dust in a desk drawer. In fact, today I downloaded the refund form to just get my balance back and call it a day.
    Incidentally, during the testing period, I found the MUNI underground setup something between amusing and ridiculous: I tag my card, the machine beeps, then I go to the turnstile, the attendant looks at a device to verify that I've paid, and pushes a button to let me in! Reminded me of the "Mechanical Turk" from the 1800s, which was purported to be a chess-playing computer, but actually had a person inside moving the pieces around.
    How far are we from Silicon Valley again?