Fragmentation of Local Governments Has Direct and Lasting Impact on Regional Transit Service and Future Planning, Study says


Most American metropolitan areas feature a core city, as well as numerous independently-governed smaller cities adjacent to it. These patchworks of communities must coordinate to provide public transit, which is often very difficult. Resulting in large gaps in the system—areas where residents can’t get to work, medical appointments, jobs and school without a car. For example, the above image illustrates the 91 independent cities that populate St. Louis County, all within the Bistate Development Authority service area, crossing between Missouri and Illinois. A single transit agency services this county, and each of the 91 municipalities has a relationship with that agency that determines the extent to which transit services operate within their borders; yet most service doesn’t go to St. Charles County, which has not passed a county sales tax ordinance providing funding. Riders may need to go to jobs there, and residents may need to get to services in the rest of the region, but there are no formal agreements or funding in place to support cross-country service.

As planners work to design, fund, and build truly regional transit networks that serve these patchworks, they face increasingly complex and expensive obstacles to building lasting regional integration. For example, in Southeast Michigan, bus service going through Bloomfield Hills simply doesn’t stop, because that jurisdiction has opted not to join the transit system.

A recently-completed CTEDD study examined the ways in which transit agencies and local governments are (or are not) working together to more effectively serve their transit riders and regional stakeholders, and it has generated some useful findings for practice and scholarship.

“Fragmentation of transit service is an understudied challenge,” says Dr. David Weinreich, who led the study. “Decreasing federal and state support for transportation is forcing local governments to raise their own money to support transit needs. As a result, policymakers need creative solutions to ensure that local funding and local planning don’t lead to gaps in transit services. Our study is the first step towards quantifying the extent of the problem. We were also able to pinpoint areas with either excessive fragmentation or notable examples of cooperation to overcome it.”

Weinreich, Skuzinski & Hamidi’s study is the first known to provide comprehensive national data on fragmentation and cross-jurisdictional coordination in transit governance. Their analysis found wide geographic variation in service fragmentation, with a few patterns to observe.

“Among the most fragmented regions, we found that the strongest cross-jurisdictional structures were in the Mid-Atlantic States, where transit is often operated and funded by the state government; and to regions in states like California and Florida, where transit services are funded at the county level, making it possible to provide county-wide transit coverage,” Weinreich explained. “On the other hand, regions in Texas and Michigan, where local cities must elect to join a transit agency (and fund transit services) had many gaps without transit coverage.

For example, in Los Angeles County (California), the entire county is covered by a transit agency, meaning 100% of the population of the LA region lives in an area that could provide transit service if it wanted to. By contrast, 27.6% of the Detroit metro region and 41.9% of the Dallas-Fort Worth metro region lives in a municipality that has opted not to join a transit agency. That means many areas are left out, many destinations like the Cowboys Stadium don’t have transit. And riders will need to walk long distances, buy separate tickets and wait for untimed transfers to get to their destinations.”

Weinreich and co-authors, Dr. Thomas Skuzinski of Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs, and Shima Hamidi from University of Texas at Arlington encountered some challenges to data collection and analysis, but they and their team of student researchers were ultimately able to build a massive database of information to inform this and future studies on fragmentation.

“Collecting data on transit system governance in over 12,000 municipalities was a challenge,” admits Weinreich. “We had to make hundreds of phone calls, emails, and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in order to collect the data we needed.”

The team collected fragmentation data using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) maps supplemented by General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) data, and transit agency route maps when they were available. Gathering data on formal cross-jurisdictional structures represented an additional challenge for the group, which ultimately documented 200 separate metropolitan regions in their study.

“We looked at agency board structures to see if there were cases where the same person sat on more than one transit agency board (which would indicate connections across agencies or with a municipality or MPO),” explains Weinreich. “We also collected information on funding structures, particularly the level of government that makes funding decisions (e.g. state, regional, municipality), whether local governments had the authority to opt out of membership in a transit agency, and whether multiple governments had agreed to a formal interlocal agreement.”

Weinreich, Skuzinski, and Hamidi ultimately found that coordination among transit agencies and local governments is possible even in difficult situations, but they found a great deal of variation from region to region in the solutions used to provide service, but structural barriers require enormous effort to coordinate. Cross-state coordination is probably the most difficult. But even in the same state, they found many state regulations that promote fragmentation, and hinder cooperation, like funding and planning decisions made by cities, townships or villages. States that provided transit through the state government, or allowed multiple counties to provide multi-county transportation tax measures on the ballot had some of the strongest cooperative structures in place. Alternatively, governments can provide multi-jurisdictional service through interlocal agreements, but these require strong cooperation between multiple transit agencies.
“This is a problem that technology won’t fix, and more money won’t fix. Only a structural change in the way these government entities work with each other will fix it,” argues Weinreich.

The team is already moving on to the next step in their research agenda, and are now exploring the specific financial and operational consequences of fragmentation and poor cooperation. They are presently distributing their findings via academic journals, community engagement, and a published webinar explaining the project from start to finish. A link to the webinar is included below.

The Center for Transportation Equity, Decisions, and Dollars (C-TEDD) is a Tier-One University Transportation Center funded by the United States Department of Transportation and housed at the University of Texas at Arlington. Its research activities seek real-world solutions to the nation’s pressing transportation challenges, with a particular focus on issues of social equity and equal access, reformed decision-making processes, and innovative models of funding transportation programs and infrastructure.