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The Future of Transit: Innovations, Challenges, and Collaboration

Welcome to the Capstone Conversation! In this episode, host Jared Asch takes a deep dive into the world of public transportation with the executive directors of AC Transit and County Connection. Jared is joined by Bill Churchill, General Manager of County Connection, and Michael Hursh, General Manager and Chief Executive Officer of AC Transit. Together, they discuss the evolving transit landscape in the East Bay, tackling critical issues from climate challenges to ridership trends in the post-COVID world.


## Innovative Leaders at the Helm


Jared introduces Bill and Michael, describing them as pioneers in public transit innovation. Bill Churchill, who has been with County Connection for over 27 years, shares his journey from the planning department to becoming the general manager. He explains the company's service area, which spans 200 square miles and serves ten cities in central Contra Costa County.


Michael Hursh, an Air Force veteran and experienced transit executive, outlines AC Transit's extensive reach. It covers areas from Richmond to Fremont and includes four operating divisions. He highlights that AC Transit is the largest bus-only agency in California, connecting to various transportation systems like BART and Amtrak.


## Addressing the Complex Transit Ecosystem


Jared raises the complex issue of navigating the 27 transit agencies in the Bay Area. Bill emphasizes the importance of specialized transit services tailored to unique geographical and socio-economic needs. He argues that despite the high number of agencies, the system works due to careful coordination and connectivity efforts.


Michael adds that funding disparities make replicating a European-style integrated transit system challenging. He champions the Bay Pass pilot program, which aims to provide seamless access to multiple transit services through institutional passes.


## Post-COVID Ridership Realities


The discussion then shifts to the impact of COVID-19 on public transit. Michael reveals that AC Transit has seen a 73 percent return to pre-pandemic ridership levels. He explains that remote work trends have made public transit scheduling more unpredictable, with varying demand across different days of the week.


Bill shares that County Connection has reached 80 percent of its pre-pandemic ridership, with significant increases in weekend usage. Both leaders stress the importance of reliability and adaptability in meeting the changing needs of riders.


## The Zero Emissions Challenge


Transitioning to zero-emission fleets presents another set of hurdles. Michael outlines the ambitious state mandate to achieve a fully zero-emission fleet by 2040. However, he notes the logistical and financial challenges, including infrastructure upgrades and the high cost of electric buses and hydrogen fuel cells.


Bill echoes these concerns, emphasizing the need for more funding and the importance of having a reliable power grid to support electric and hydrogen buses. He questions whether the current approach will significantly reduce emissions, arguing that getting more people out of cars and into buses would be a more effective solution.


## The Need for Sustainable Funding


Jared and his guests also touch on public transit agencies' fiscal challenges. Finding sustainable funding solutions is crucial with ridership down and operational costs up. Michael and Bill agree that public transit in the Bay Area is underfunded, and agencies will struggle to meet future demands without new revenue streams.


## Closing Thoughts


In the concluding remarks, Bill and Michael highlight the incredible coordination and camaraderie among Bay Area transit agencies. Despite the challenges, they remain optimistic about the future of public transit, emphasizing the need for continued innovation, collaboration, and, most importantly, adequate funding.


Thank you for tuning in to this insightful episode of the Capstone Conversation. Stay informed and engaged as we explore the future of public transportation and its critical role in shaping a sustainable and connected Bay Area.



TRANSCRIPT

  


Marker


Welcome to this episode of the Capstone Conversation. I'm your host, Jared Asch. Today, we're going to take a bus tour of the East Bay with the executive directors of AC Transit and County Connection.


And we're going to learn about  our public transportation system, how are they stepping up to the climate challenge and state regulations. How are they dealing with the post COVID transit world and how are they managing growth in the East Bay? Why these two agencies? Well, they're innovative, they're nice, and they agreed to do it.


These two gentlemen that you're going to meet today are leaders in the field.  I think they tell a good story  that, will include their colleagues and various views that cover the whole region.


 1st, we're going to have Bill Churchill, 


General Manager is my official title. 


All right. So, Bill, tell us a little bit about yourself and county connection in the service area.  


Great. Well, I actually was hired by county connection in 1996.


so I have now worked for the agency for more than 27 years.  And I began in the planning department,  and I've sort of taken a spiral approach to the top, if that makes sense, running planning and then scheduling and IT eventually running operations for about 15 years, and finally finding myself in the general manager's seat.


Certainly not something I necessarily aspire to. Sometimes you have these things happen to you. And the service area for County Connection is really represented by the city of Martinez to the north  and city of San Ramon to the south.  Concord and Clayton to the east and Moraga Orinda essentially to the west.


 That central sloth of Contra Costa County, about 200 square miles, 10 cities.  


Right, and Michael Hirsch,  please go ahead and introduce yourself and a little bit more about AC Transit. 


Great, and thanks so much for the invitation to be here. And yeah, it's Mike Hirsch, General Manager, Chief Executive Officer, Alameda Contra Costa Transit District, AC Transit.


I'm an Air Force veteran. I got out of the Air Force in the Bay Area in 1989. And there's a saying in our industry that, you know, people don't find transit, transit finds us. And that's certainly what happened with me. I applied to electronics technician skills I learned in the Air Force to a train control job then San Francisco Muni Municipal Railway in 1993.


Worked there, eventually became an employee of San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, SFMTA. Worked my way up the ladder there.  I went to Valley Transportation Authority in Santa Clara County, was the Director of Maintenance and Chief Operating Officer, and then got a phone call 1 day. So the general manager positions open at AC Transit, and you should throw your hat in the ring.


I've been here 8 and a half years. It's the best job I've ever had. 1 of the most rewarding jobs I've ever had. AC Transit, as the name implies, really, our district is really been. Richmond, a little bit north of Richmond in Contra Costa County. We pretty much follow the hill line on what I would consider the west side of  Contra Costa County and certainly all of Alameda County,  4 operating divisions, one in Richmond, Emeryville,  Oakland, which is called Seminary, and then Hayward, and some support facilities, headquarters in Oakland and a central maintenance facility in Oakland, training center in Hayward.


We go as far south. Really, we could kind of say Warm Springs, Fremont. We do have one line that goes into Santa Clara County.  Pre pandemic, we had booming service, particularly into downtown San Francisco, our Transbay service. Certainly much less ridership on Transbay. We also serve Stanford University.


We manage the contract for the Dumbarton service on the Dumbarton Corridor. So we, we cover a lot of areas. We connect to, to BART and Capital Corridor, Amtrak and then have the transit based services, as I mentioned.  


 Mike, talk about the size of AC Transit.  In relation to other transit agencies in the Bay Area.


Sure. 


We we, we consider ourselves the 3rd largest basically based on ridership. The numbers have fluctuated a little bit with, with the pandemic. Ironically, during the pandemic, there was a time when we were carrying more people than, than we are today. Then Barry at Rapid Transit, who's long standing been the number two agency.


Muni or SFMTA dominates ridership in the Bay Area, so we're number three. We are the largest bus only agency  in California. Third largest bus only agency in the United States, and one of only three agencies with a directly elected board. I report to a seven member board. Myself, Bay Area Rapid Transit, and Denver have directly elected boards.


Interesting. And Bill, where does County Connection fall on the scale of size?  


 Federally, we're considered a mid size bus operator. So, within the Bay Area, the 27 operators, there are seven large and there's 19 small. And technically, through MTC, we're classified as a small.  We're either the smallest of the large or the largest of the small. 


And kind of like the middle child of 4 kids, right? We are definitely the middle child there. There is no way around that. And then our board is constructed a little bit differently. It's an elected council member. Assigned to our board from each of the 10 cities that we serve, and then one county supervisor.


They are elected officials within cities in the county structure, then appointed to our board. And then the organization that we are is called a JPA, or a Joint Powers Authority, which is a little different than what AC Transit is structured as.  


 Let's hit on 27 transit agencies in the Bay Area. 


Most riders don't necessarily remember the name, or I mean, they might remember the name, but they don't necessarily care where the agency's territory starts and ends. What they care is they have an easy ride from point A to point B. And if they have to transfer, that's fine.  There's a lot of talk and conversations going on about not necessarily bringing it into one agency, but about making wayfinding easier, streamlining that ride.


Can you guys talk about that process? 


 Certainly. Well, you know, I think there is a lot of rhetoric surrounding the fact that there are 27 operators in the region.  It may seem like a lot, but, you know, compared to other areas, it really isn't. I think the greater Los Angeles area is over 40. 


And. For whatever reason, within the Bay Area, there just is a tremendous amount of attention put on the fact that there are 27 different operators. And,  you know, it's interesting because our, the Bay Area really is fractured a little bit. either by large hill chains, like what separates AC Transit from County Connection, or large bodies of water that separates AC Transit from SFMTA, for example. 


And when you look at each of these sort of unique geographical areas, they all have their own hospitals, social services, education, shopping centers.  Each as a uniquely self sustained geographic area. So it's not really inconceivable that we have transit that meets the needs and the nuance transportation requirements of each of those specific geographical areas.


So I think It's a false rhetoric to say that having more than 20 operators is, is just plain wrong.  On the flip side, and, and I don't want to take up all the airspace here, we are highly connected.  For example, and I'll just focus on County Connection, 99. 9 percent of every trip we have hits a BART station.


and BART, as you know, is the regional operator in the East Bay for certain. And so there's no lack of connectivity there at all.  Additional to that, we have routes that penetrate into the different service areas of our neighboring transit agencies, such as Tri Delta and LAFTA. Or WestCat, for example, has routes that come into and penetrate the county connection service area.


So we focus and put a lot of time, thought, and energy into how we coordinate our services together to make it essentially seamless for somebody to travel from one region to another within the Bay Area.  


If I could, if I could add to that, I think  Bill makes a really important point. We are being compared to Europe is quite often the model that's, that's brought up, but what's not being compared is how European transit is funded.


We, the transit operators, fully understand and desire to have the integration and the large network that. The public transit's possible as we look in Europe. But I think you have to, to answer your question directly, I think you have to look at how we're funded. A lot of the money is local. In Alameda County, the voters have, and we're very proud and appreciative that they've voted a parcel tax and renewed a parcel tax.


To support public transit, VTA is largely sales tax funded. The folks that are paying those taxes want the service. And as the pandemic illustrated for us, speaking for AC Transit,  I believe there's a voice out there that often isn't heard, and that's the disadvantaged community, the service employee, the folks working late at night, weekends, that are literally transit dependent.


And that's why our ridership We lost a lot of ridership, but not to the  percentage or magnitude of other agencies, because so many of AC Transit riders are transit dependent, don't have a car, live well below the poverty line. We have an obligation to serve those. I am frustrated that there's not better funding in the United States.


A little bit at the Bay Area for the way public transit operates. What I'm often quoted is, can you imagine if every day a student went to class and we tried to charge them 2. 50 to get in the class, but yet that's what we do on on every transit vehicle. Now, there are a lot of good things happening. I'm chair of the, of the fare integration task force.


We're very proud of the Bay Pass pilot that's running that's, that's using institutional passes and giving, for example, at UC  Berkeley, this is a pilot group, not, not 100 percent of the audience, but over 50, 000 institutional pass holders between San Jose State, UC Berkeley,  UCSF, and a housing authority in San Mateo County are testing access to all transit.


Now that's being done because we have a funding source to do that.  We've instituted the Clipper Pass, a low income mechanism, so there's lots of opportunity, particularly with Clipper 2 coming online. But ultimately, you have to look at who's paying for the local transit and what opportunities are there to find additional funding to expand to a regional network. 


Let's talk about ridership post COVID,? Cause you mentioned how COVID changed it and the essential workers that are on it. How has COVID impacted both your agencies and,  how have you, more have you, how have you rebounded and how has it changed the way you operate? Then what happened in the immediate sense of COVID?


Mike, you want to start that one 


first? Yeah, sure. It's a great question. And we're, and we're still in the midst of adapting to that. Since COVID or post COVID, we've seen almost 73 percent ridership compared to pre pandemic we've, we've had 16 percent year over year ridership increases since the pandemic. 


We AC Transitive instituted what we're calling realign. We've conducted.  Hundreds of outreach events, conducted surveys, trying to figure out what's the best use of our resources to serve the most people reliably. And I got to tell you, this reliability is an issue that we hear loud and clear. The bus service that we are able to operate needs to be on time and it needs to show up dependably.


With that said,  post COVID, and particularly, Employees that can work remotely, part time, or work from home has made public transit scheduling a nightmare. Right now, we seem to be in a pattern where Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday are the heaviest weekday riderships, Monday a little bit, Friday nothing at all.


We have seen some encouraging signs on weekend and after hours, event type service. Figuring out where that's going to be today and where it's going to be two years from now. I think the public and employers are still adapting for us with a largely transit dependent ridership with very 2 different clientele.


The transit dependent ridership is essential workers don't have the opportunity to work remotely and the percentage of for AC transit that can work remotely. Takes away from our ridership, but it's difficult which do you prioritize and that's unique to AC Transit having worked for 3 agencies, even though, you know, it's a, it's a transit vehicle with a fare box on a scheduled service.


I can tell you that the actual customers and the actual needs look at even Santa Clara County VTA and AC Transit. Numerically, fleet size and number of employees about the same, but the ridership need and the business is quite different. That multiplies through the various different agencies in the Bay Area. 


You're talking the socio economic sort of need. 


Complications. You know, one of the reasons I love working at AC Transit is the diversity, but I also love living in the Bay Area because of the diversity. You can, you can practically travel around the world and from a culinary experience, if you just research what type of food and where it is in the Bay Area, that's true of also our, our riders.


It's true of our of, of a residence of the Bay Area. That's what makes us such an incredible. Place to live, but it also means that our transit customers are incredibly diverse and their needs are different based on where they live and what type of job they have.  


You know, that's a good promotional thing that the transit agencies can do.


It's kind of like, when you go to EPCOT, you could,  eat or drink around the world. Eat or drink around the world in the Bay Area and like make a week long event as part of Restaurant Week kind of thing.  


 You really could. And I think Mike makes a really phenomenal point. It goes back to the fact that, you know, the Bay Area is fractured into all these different geographical areas and each one really almost has its own unique culture.


And so the nuanced needs of transportation and AC transits service area is certainly going to be different than that of SFMTA and certainly different from what's going on in county connection. So, you know, we each have to respond in completely different ways. So, similar to AC Transit, County Connection is about 80 percent of what we were pre pandemic. 


What's interesting also, though, is the return of the rider is very different. It's largely transit dependent. And essential workers, similar to AC Transit in that vein, but our commute rider is is still 25 to 30 percent of what it was pre pandemic. Our weekend ridership is close to 120 percent of what it was pre pandemic.


The way people are using the services, where they're going, what their needs are, has changed dramatically. And from a planning perspective, we're scrambling to figure it out. Who's writing? Where do they need to go? How do we serve this, this new need? I think it's going to be one that changes over the course of the next couple of years as well.


It's not going to be static. And so that puts a lot of pressure on the transit agencies to be able to figure it out and keep up with the times and make sure that we're remaining relevant to the communities we serve.  


I'll just expand on that real quick. And it's not just.  The hours of service and the miles and the location of stops, also the fleet, particularly for AC Transit.


We were, we were at capacity. We were actually overflow for BART and our trans based service was at capacity. We were at capacity in our yards pre pandemic. We wanted to put more service out, but we literally did not have the capacity. places to park buses, but we are also buying buses that are better equipped for Transbay, luggage racks what we call an over the road coach, a bigger coach, a double decker bus, for example.


Right now, the Transbay services It's all but disintegrated. Do we stop buying those buses? Is it going to come back? You know, it takes 3 years to buy a bus. We are all making very important decisions about what our fleet looks like as we, as we all work very hard to comply with the 2040 innovative clean transit rule and transition to zero emission.


But these are decisions we have to make today at a time when ridership is unpredictable compared to what we're used to in the past.  


 I'm going to come back to the zero emissions  goals in a minute. What I want to talk about, though, is as you guys are talking about planning for these changes in ridership, the counties in the East Bay have been growing astronomically post COVID.


They had been growing a lot before central county, east county connections, everything in AC transit. Multiple story transit accessible.   We spent 20 years trying to say, build on BART stations. Make bus intersect with the rail stations. Is that still the plan?


Do we see people wanting that type of housing? How do you continue to plan for the growth of population occurring in the east bed? 


Wow, you know, that's a really difficult question and it's, there's so much in there. We could probably spend the rest of the day just discussing that. From a County Connection perspective, which looks very different than the AC Transit service area. AC Transit's got a lot more density going on than in the County Connection area.


We're largely suburban. It's very difficult to find ways to serve  those populations where it's, it's so diffuse.  And so, The more that we add density and add density around rail lines, I think it serves and is better for Central Contra Costa County for sure as a whole. And it makes it easier for bus entities and agencies such as County Connection to connect the dots when you've got dense population centers. 


The diffuse components that are contained within Central Contra Costa County aren't going to go away. And so they will always be a challenge, even as we add density along certain corridors. And I think the story is going to be very different in probably the Oakland area. So I won't presume, Mike, I'll turn it over to you for that one.


Well, I'm going to just give you a full disclosure here. I owned a home in Brentwood when my kids were young. I was very happy to participate in the Brentwood Unified School District for a great education system for my kids. But I got a real taste of living in a suburban community, living 4. This is before E BART opened. 


We could have a whole Weak podcast on the America's love with the automobile with our freeway highway network and decisions many years ago to build up our suburban communities as a transit geek. And someone who lives in San Leandro now, I fully get and support high density housing built next to transit.


I keep going back to that European model. You know, Switzerland is a great example where you, to get from city to city, you're going to take a train. And when you get to a city, you have a large, dense Urban area with a, robust transit system, bus system,  rail to get in between, but then bus in the core.


And it's unfortunate. We don't have that in the United States. I think, actually, we do better in the Bay Area compared to, you know, I was born in Reno and there's, there's very little public transit in Reno compared to the Bay Area. Yeah, we can do a lot better. Yeah, we'd love to have the regional network.


But our fascination with the automobile, our fascination with the freeway and mega homes out in the suburbs.  Do not match our, our desire to get everybody out of their car and have a robust public transit, zero emission public transit system.  


You know, and underpinning what Mike just said, the lack of willingness to fund public transit.


So we could do better. And we could serve what we have in our existing structure better. But overall, the biggest issue I think that we have is, Public transit in the Bay Area is underfunded for what our needs and desires really are.  


 We'll talk about that. We have two BART board members will be having an, an interesting discussion coming up as well on a future podcast episode.


They've really been hit with the fare box because  they were really probably more than any other agency in the country, fare dependent. It's my understanding. So they, they really got hurt and they just didn't get have the public funds like New York or D. C. or Atlanta have in terms of their support.


Talk about the fiscal cliff that we keep hearing in transportation.  I know that's really geared towards BART, but how is that affecting each of your agencies? You're, you're down 30 percent at AC Transit, 20 percent in County Connection. How is that impacting business? What's the timeline? Are you facing the same fiscal cliff as BART? 


Speaking for AC Transit, we are facing a fiscal cliff, and it's actually a double equation.  The loss in ridership is absolutely felt at the fare box, but then the inflation, the cost to do business is going up significantly.  We don't have it to the magnitude that BART does, and we're doing everything we can to tighten our belt, but at the same time, be an attractive employer where we have a, what we call the silver tsunami.


We have employees retiring and we need to be competitive. And unfortunately, people aren't looking for a 30 year career anymore. The,  folks that are entering the  job market are not looking for. To be a public transit employee for 30 years that are looking for a quick hit, and we're competing with the gig economy, the the Ubers, the Amazons of the world.


So, on one side, we have to be an attractive employer with a great benefits program. But we're also paying the most we've ever paid for fuel the most we've ever paid for bus. Procurement for sure,  while dealing with decline ridership. So every transit agency in the Bay Area and and when I'm out in the world, 99 percent of the transit agency that I talked to, it's the same thing.


And unfortunately, there's no fluff. Every penny we have goes in for AC transit goes into operating revenue service.  There's no other ancillary programs. We are a bus only agency, proud of putting out bus service, but if there are decline in revenues, ultimately, that leads to how much service we can put out. 


Yeah, that's really well said. And, and while County Connection's a little different, the similarities are pretty strong.  So, we are largely a sales tax based revenue system, and like Mike, we are a bus service only,  and as we watch the expenses go up, the tax revenues go up. Really go up maybe about 2.6, 2.7%.


When you look at a long, you know, 15, 20 year horizon, but your expenses go up about 3.1%. So there is  a structural.  In balance between the growth of our revenues and the growth of our expenses. So, while county connection isn't currently suffering a fiscal cliff, and it isn't looming in the next 3 to 4 years, in 5 to 6 years.


We have an absolute fiscal cliff, and it's primarily due to that imbalance  between the revenue growth and the expense growth and without new revenues, we're going to be in some real trouble. 


I want to hit on the point you made, Mike, about the silver tsunami and attracting drivers. Even before COVID, it was starting to be a problem where a lot of agencies couldn't run buses because they didn't have enough employees.


Is that still a problem for both your agencies and throughout the area, are drivers full now? Or how are we addressing recruiting workforce?  


It's actually a much bigger problem. You're right. We were feeling the early effects pre COVID. One of the things when COVID happened is we immediately stopped all hiring.


We weren't sure where we were going and that got us further behind the curve on hiring people. We are incredibly, and by the way, it's not just bus operators, it's mechanics, janitors, planners, every, every position. We are. Incredibly proud of our frontline employees, but it's an incredibly difficult job.


They are really the social worker, the police officer, the clergy, the parent, the counselor for everybody out there. And it's a job with a high burnout rate. You know, the packages in an Amazon truck don't speak back to you. They don't assault you. And,  It takes a special person to be a professional bus operator.


We have, and by the way, actransit. org slash careers, we're hiring as fast as we can. We're graduating. We have a class of 22 every month. We typically graduate 19. we have people that fall out for COVID and various reasons learn how difficult the job is. actransit. org slash careers. We're hiring. We have a hiring incentive.


We Are are looking at everything we can to really make the life of our employees have a good work life balance. They're seeing, you know, co workers and friends that do have a remote work option.  We have to make these jobs attractive. We're looking at creative ways to hire people looking at hire and identifying people, not just in community college, but high schools to try to build that career path.


And this is not just the Bay Area everywhere. I go  in my profession as a trend and executive. In the United States, everybody's fighting this issue.  


Yeah, it's a nationwide issue. There's a nationwide shortage of mechanics and operators.  Probably most specifically, but certainly all the way across the board of all the different categories within the transportation world.


And 1 of the challenges. We have, and we try to be really thoughtful about this, but we don't want to compete against each other either, where you know, I'm training an operator only to have, you know, Mike hire them or Fridel to hire them. So,  you know, we all have a shortage. It's, it's a very small pool of potential employees.


And then the other thing is, as Mike put it, these are not easy jobs. They're not for everybody. And I think we're finding less and less people willing to take on these, challenging jobs. That only makes our job that much more difficult to find the right level of, of personnel to cover these positions.


But using as a mechanic and a janitor as an example, how does the, the salary income level and benefits compare to a mechanic who's working at my car at the local garage or a janitor in an elementary school? 


 Well, that's a great question, but I don't think you can look at just salary. We probably will. So, first off, let's talk about a bus operator.  It's a union job at entry level. It is paying hourly  less than they can get it at Amazon or potentially even a dealership. However,  it's the benefits you need to look at. 


What they and the younger generation is not Realizing the cost of medical coverage  the pension we offer tuition as reimbursement to the whole package deal. This is so important that we've added a, we have a 10 week operator training program. We added what we're calling a pre week to really Teach people one about our legacy.


We go all the way back to the key system and,  really our, our genesis actually comes from right after the 1906 earthquake and, and everybody moving to the East Bay out of, out of San Francisco. We teach 'em about that history and, and how about  a trend? It's a unique place. We have a unique ridership.


We have a very diverse employee headcount, but also very. Diverse ridership. We try to teach them that, that you're not delivering packages for, for a Fortune 100 or Fortune 500. You're delivering people to, to school, to faith, to pharmacy, to doctor's appointments, job interviews. We also are doing a minor social, Hey, are you okay?


Are you, do you have housing? We require black slacks and a white shirt to start training. And we've had people that literally don't have that. So we've tried to,  connect them with, this is not just a, yep, you can get a quick book buck. You can go drive for Uber. And at the end of the day, you download your 45 bucks.


This is a career, but you're going to have to invest in it. Being a professional operators, a class B with a passenger endorsement license, significant amount of DMV testing annual physical requirement. A more difficult license to hold on to, you know, you can't go to traffic school and erase a citation as an example. 


If we teach them that this is a career, not a gig job, we're successful in retaining them. But a lot of people just want to go. Get the quick buck and be done. And if it's, if you're looking at just an hourly, and I'm sorry to go on too long here, but if you're looking at just an hourly paycheck, initially, we don't compete with the, with the quick hit, no benefit, no union protection jobs that are out there. 


That's come up at a water agency discussion that I've had recently where the average Engineer at a water agency has already like four years past retirement age and doesn't know how to use Google Docs. And so it's a problem they're facing and they can't, they can't pay the same amount you're talking about, right, compared to the private sector.


So  it's interesting you hear the vacancies that a lot of the cities have throughout the Bay Area and the counties in terms of hiring workers for their  Other jobs as well. I want to pivot to the zero emissions fleet. We have state mandates. Do one of you want to tackle what are the state mandates that you have facing your agencies and how are you working to get there?


I  


think it'd be great, Mike, if you don't mind you framing it up because really you've been the initial leader in the whole Bay Area, if not the nation to begin with, and then I can talk about what County Connection has done as well.  


Thanks, Bill, and it's not me, but I will say it's AC Transit. I was lucky when I got here, AC Transit had been a pioneering leader in hydrogen fuel cell zero emission buses.


We all knew that the key to climate change and saving our planet is to get people out of single occupant automobiles into public transit. We knew that long before. The Air Resources Board regulated it, but for all transit buses in the state of California, we have to be zero emission by 2040.  A lot of people don't realize that if you use federal money to buy a bus, you have to operate that bus for a minimum of 12 years.


I don't like that. It's called it. Innovative Clean Transit 2040, it should be called Innovative Clean Transit now. A lot of the fleet decisions we're making are today to make sure that we're, for us, it's a little over 650 buses to become zero emission by 2040. Now, with that said, there's also been a competing issue between pure battery electric buses and hydrogen fuel cell buses.


Hydrogen fuel cell buses fuel the same amount of duration. You can fuel it about 8 to 12 minutes. The range is the same on a hot day or a cold day. The fuel is incredibly expensive and arguably not as clean as it, well, it's not as clean as it could be. Eventually we're going to get green hydrogen. 


Flip that to the battery, pure battery bus. They take anywhere from an hour to six hours to charge. The range is very variable. A hot day and a cold day, the bus goes a much shorter distance than on an ambient temperature day. And the biggest issue we're having right now in California, at least in Northern California, is PG& E cannot provide the number of electrons we need to charge them.


We are very proud at AC Transit that we stayed on both paths, so much so that we partnered with Stanford University on our website under Zero Emission. You'll find what we did. Locally called a 5 by 5 study where we've operated hydrogen fuel cell buses from the same manufacturer beside battery electric buses with the same manufacturer to give academic peer review data on what the actual performance of zero emission bus options are out there.


To make it worse the, the bus manufacturers in the United States, we are required to be by America. Compliant, which is it should be, but we're down to 2 manufacturers to have gone either into bankruptcy and been sold, or just completely got out of the transit bus manufacturing side. The cost of a zero emission bus was predicted to go down.


That's what we. Kind of reluctantly signed on to with the Air Resources Board regulation, buses would become more available, the utilities would be able to provide the power, the cost of hydrogen would come down, and the cost of vehicles would come down. Neither of which has happened. All the opposites happen.


The buses are almost 30 percent more expensive. They're only available from two Buy America compliant manufacturers right now. Hydrogen is as expensive as it's ever been. We're excited about the hydrogen hub and the Arches project that's coming to fruition under the Biden administration. But hydrogen has had this problem that it'll be cheaper in a few years.


We still are on that same timeline horizon. We still have the range issues.  And Pacific Gas and Electric has backed away from, we'll get you whatever you need to. We don't think we can bring you the amount of electric capacity you need. I hope that set the stage, Bill. It's a super complicated issue. It's one we can't back away from, but it's harder today to see us making 2040 than it was a couple of years ago. 


You know, I think County Connection really followed AC Transit's lead in this,  and County Connection , were an early adopter as well. We have a fleet, we have the 1st fleet in the United States of inductively charged battery electric buses. We've worked very closely with Gillig, the local bus manufacturer, where their prototype testing center probably due to our proximity to the manufacturing plant.


And so we're committed as an agency and an authority to zero emissions. But  when you look at all those issues that Mike so quickly just pared it out,  there aren't enough bus manufacturers to create enough buses for us to even comply with the state regulation. And then when you really step back and you begin to look at it from  a more macro perspective, and this is just Bill's perspective.


As we analyze what it's going to cost, all 27 agencies, we're roughly estimating the, the cost to be about 5. 5 billion dollars to make that conversion to zero emission.  Now CARB did release a statistic A number of years ago that  public transit represents 7 tenths of a percent of the Bay Area's mobile source emissions.


And so we're going to spend 5. 5 billion dollars to move the needle on emissions from 0. 7 percent to what?  To 0. 4? We're not sure because hydrogen isn't completely clean and neither is the electricity we use to charge those electric buses. 80 percent of the electricity that we have available to us is produced through hydrocarbon sources.


 At some point, we do need to think about that macro perspective, because the single most effective way to reduce emissions is getting folks out of the car, not cleaning the bus. If we have more buses, and more transit, and get more people out of the car, we'll be more effective at reducing emissions overall.


 That's just sort of a, a different perspective when, when looking at this. The other concern that I, I guess I have is,  you know, Mike touched on the fact that you can't go as far. It's not quite as reliable and PG& E , is a problem. They cannot sell enough electrons to, to move these vehicles or fuel these vehicles.


Public transit is a vital component of each of our community's emergency services.  And so if we can't charge a bus, we're not available to provide emergency services to our communities and the communities we serve. And here's a perfect example of that.  A year ago last September, and you may or may not remember this, we had a profound heat wave in the state of California. 


I received a call from the governor's office.  They informed me County Connection was identified as having a bus electric fleet, and they asked me not to charge that fleet and operate it over the weekend as the state's grid was not going to be capable of handling those charging issues.


Not an hour later, I received a call from our county's Office of Emergency Services saying, hey, Bill, could you have a set of buses set to the side? We're concerned that maybe some of the senior homes, HVAC systems will collapse and we need you to stand by, be ready to move people to cooling centers. And of course, I couldn't help it in my mind.


I'm thinking, well, 10 years from now, when all I have is electric buses, what am I going to do? How am I going to protect our community?  


 The PG& E issue comes up in economic development because  companies have Not come to Pittsburgh Bay Point because not because of permitting or anything else, but because it was two to three years before they can get the electricity.


And Vacaville, which has become a hub for life science companies, also is building a tech park up there. And they're like, you know, we can't really keep building it because we don't have power for it. And people came up that  there was an article in the paper that along I 5, a huge Tesla, one of the two biggest Tesla charging stations between San Jose and L.


A. on I 5 is actually fueled by diesel. So you're using diesel to fuel the electric car.  


Another thing, we're ready to add more battery buses at our Emeryville division and even PG& E is like, yeah, we can get this for you. What we can't get is the switchgear, the, the  somewhat off the shelf transformer and, and, and energy Steering mechanisms to build the infrastructure in the yard.


When Bill talks about the 5. 5 billion with a B, it's not just buying buses. Our yards need charging infrastructure, fueling infrastructure. If you have hydrogen fuel cell buses, you have to equip your maintenance base to handle hydrogen fuel. It's very complicated. In addition to our grid capacity. Now, we also have the supply chain problems.


Not to even mention Buy America with utilities, but just getting the, the transformers and switchgear necessary to equip our yards as we're running into not months, but years delay.  


Interesting. I think that's good for all the local elected officials and other people who serve on your boards to just be aware, join the conversation and talk about these things.


What else haven't I been asking? And what do you want people to take away from this on?  On transit, what do you want them to, what message do you want to sort of leave here  about the direction of the future of transit, the problems you're talking about with turning green,  getting people on the buses? 


The problem is not, the problem is not 27 Bay Area transit agencies.


We are working incredibly hard from, from the frontline employee to the executive team. The general managers are meeting every Monday. We are absolutely coordinating, and there's a lot of good stuff coming. We talked about the fair integration. Clipper 2 will be incredibly exciting. And it really is here, folks.


It's coming this year. The wayfinding, we will have a pilot, if you will, signage out in Santa Rosa, and I believe Berkeley. Later this year, we really are working to be a more uniform, more uniform product. The issue is we need to pay for public transit in the United States.  I'll stump for the Bay Area.


We could do more if we had more resources. We, we operate incredibly efficient,  but we also are on the fringe of not, if you don't operate enough, it's not attractive and people don't Choose to ride in their automobile. We are a bunch of hardworking, dedicated, public transit loving people. And we're just frustrated that we don't have the resources.


We know what we're capable of.  I'll put in 1 more plug. AC Transit is incredibly proud to be selected as the Outstanding Transit Agency of the Year in the entire United States for medium, basically more than 15, less than 50M annual riders. We could do more if we had more resources. We're incredibly appreciative of the taxpayers that do open the wallet and fund public transit.


We wish there was a more hardcore, Pressure to find a long term, sustainable public transit funding mechanism like we have in Europe.  


Wow. I don't think I could add much to that. Mike. That was so well said. You know, I, I think. One of the things that's also incredible, and it's in something that Mike has already said, but the level of coordination that goes on, the executive directors meet, as he said, every single Monday.


We are sharing what's working, what's not working. How do we improve it? And the other component is we are not selfish in sharing resources and supporting each other. For example, anytime an accident happens, BART shuts down for any reason, a tree falls on the track both AC Transit County Connection were providing bus bridges within minutes, moving people, so we will move BART's passengers  at a moment's notice and not care about the fact that it's not our passengers.


That's the kind of level of partnership, collaboration, and coordination that we really have.  Well said, Bill.  


Yeah, I think you guys closed great there. And I think those are good messages for people in coordination and where we need transit to be to grow the Bay Area economically and reduce some of the traffic on the road.


So,  thank you, Bill Churchill from County Connection and Mike Hirsch from AC Transit in joining me today. I really appreciate hearing from you guys. Well, thank you for having us. Appreciate it. 


Thank you, Jared. Great podcast.  


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