Andrew Fremier is the newly-named Executive Director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), where he served since 2005. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission is responsible for transportation planning, funding, and coordination in the Counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano and Sonoma.
Transit California: In February 2023, you were named Executive Director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). What about your new role and MTC’s future are you most excited about?
Fremier: First and foremost, I’m excited to be able to continue the important work that MTC and the Association of Bay Area Governments do for the people of the Bay Area and excited about the knowledge, skill and commitment of every one of our 300-plus staff members. The Bay Area faces an extraordinary set of challenges — not just in preserving our transit network, adapting it to meet wildly different travel patterns than those it originally evolved to serve, while also setting it up to prosper for the long term — but also the decades-long housing affordability crisis, stronger economic headwinds, reducing our climate impacts, and adapting to rising sea levels while always remaining mindful we’re in wildfire and earthquake country too. The good news is that our long-term plan charts a clear path for making the Bay Area more affordable, connected, diverse, healthy and economically vibrant. The even better news is that Plan Bay Area 2050 earned unanimous support from both the MTC and ABAG boards, so we have our work cut out for us.
Transit California: As legislators have engaged with the Association and our members on the topic of transit operations funding, they routinely touch on the need for transit agencies to adapt their services to meet changed commute patterns, improve their efficiency, and ultimately, attract more riders. At the height of the pandemic, MTC leaned into this belief by convening the Blue Ribbon Transit Recovery Task Force. What did the Task Force accomplish and how will its work inform the evolution of the Bay Area’s public transit network moving forward?
Fremier: Even before the pandemic, overall Bay Area transit ridership had slipped from the highs reached in 2015 and 2016 especially on weekends and on more locally-oriented systems. So this was an issue that was being taken seriously before anyone had even heard the word ‘Covid.’ What the pandemic did was change the issue from ‘serious’ to ‘urgent.’ Thanks to that urgency, we were able to convene a group of 32 folks not always known for working together to do just that. The Task Force included elected officials from both the state and local level, transit agency executives, labor groups, business groups, transit advocates, social justice advocates and advocates for people with disabilities. At a time of common crisis, they identified a common mission, and reached consensus. First on how everyone can work together to secure and distribute federal funding to meet the immediate needs and allow our transit agencies to survive; then for putting our transit agencies on the road to recovery — a road that’s been longer and bumpier than expected, but a road we certainly are on — and then the steps for transforming the Bay Area transit network to make it more effective and more customer-focused. In just over a year, this group hammered out an agreement on 27 specific actions to be taken: from funding to fare payment to customer information to travel speed to accessibility and even to management reform.
And these actions are now being implemented. We have started pilots in Sonoma County for uniform mapping and wayfinding. We’re testing region-wide fare integration with the Clipper BayPass pilot. We’re moving ahead with a regional discount transfer policy that should be ready for implementation next year with the next generation of our Clipper fare-payment system. We’re integrating paratransit into the new Clipper system, too. We’re even making progress toward unified management of the regional transit network—which includes more than two dozen separate operators. There’s a lot of work still to do but we’re focusing on outcomes, the customer experience, moving together in the right direction, and gaining momentum.
Transit California: You’ve been with MTC since 2005. What Commission accomplishments are you most proud of during that time?
Fremier: In addition to this vast and ongoing effort to transform the Bay Area transit network and make it more customer-focused, three other really big Commission achievements are completing the seismic retrofit of all seven state-owned toll bridges; establishing an Express Lanes network on Bay Area freeways, which introduced market principles to manage congestion just as we have in the utility sector; and merging the MTC and ABAG staffs into a unified team that facilitates more integrated and creative thinking about the complex challenges we face in the Bay Area.
Transit California: Bay Area public transit agencies and across the state are in crisis and are facing catastrophic budget shortfalls. The Association and MTC are working together to secure mission-critical transit operations funding in the state budget, so that agencies can “survive and thrive.” What actions and support are needed from the state?
Fremier: We need the state to make a multi-year, multi-billion dollar commitment to a Transit Recovery Program that will not just ensure the solvency of California’s most at-risk transit systems but to help all the state’s transit systems retool for the future. Transit is essential to meeting California’s climate and equity goals as well as for keeping the state economy growing. Simply put, California can’t afford to lose transit.
Transit California: Separate from funding, what are some of the MTC region’s current challenges? How are these challenges unique to the MTC region, and how are they comparable to California’s other large transit planning entities?
Fremier: Housing affordability and homelessness, economic growth, income inequality (or ‘poverty’), climate change, resilience to natural disasters. None of these are unique to the Bay Area.
Transit California: As Executive Director of MTC, you automatically serve as the top executive of the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). What are ABAG’s priorities in 2023? How do you balance the different focuses of MTC and ABAG?
Fremier: The two roles are not as different as you might think. It’s easy to think of MTC as a retailer and ABAG as a wholesaler. But we’re all really working for the 8 million people who call the Bay Area home. MTC and ABAG have a shared regional housing portfolio; and having a consolidated staff makes it much easier for MTC and ABAG to do all their work in harmony.
Transit California: You’re the current president of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA), and you have decades of experience with toll operations. How does your leadership in this area inform your work at MTC?
Fremier: I’m really fortunate that my IBTTA work gives me a chance to see various mobility and customer-service initiatives put to the test in real-world conditions. Some of the really interesting developments could take us away from single-mode payments like Clipper for transit and FasTrak for bridge and highway tolls toward what you might think of as a single mobility ‘wallet.’ There are a lot of institutional barriers that will have to be overcome because the ways we’ve paid for transportation over the last hundred years or longer have changed much more slowly than the technological advances that make change possible. But if we’re really serious about putting the customer’s experience first, we can at least find workable ways to lower these barriers. Here in the Bay Area, we’re already taking some small steps in this direction, by establishing common eligibility rules for low-income discount programs like the Clipper START transit-fare discount program and our new Express Lanes START pilot, which allows lower-income drivers to pay reduced tolls on the I-880 Express Lanes in Alameda County.
Transit California: You worked at Caltrans for 20 years in several roles. How did that work prepare you for your time at MTC?
Fremier: My Caltrans work certainly gave me an appreciation of the importance of partnership, and for the power of partnership. One of the ways that has paid off is in the work MTC and Bay Area transit agencies—along with county transportation agencies and Caltrans — are doing to institute transit priority on highways and local arterials. For transit to really thrive over the long term, it has to offer more customers a competitive advantage over driving their own cars. Travel time, cost, convenience are all part of that equation. Regional express buses need Express Lanes and carpool lanes on Caltrans freeways to deliver the speed and reliability that customers demand and deserve. And traffic signal priority gives local buses a crucial advantage on local thoroughfares—many of which are owned and controlled by Caltrans. In the Bay Bridge corridor, buses already have dedicated access lanes in each direction between the bridge and the Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco. I’ve heard from my own staff that the dedicated ramp into the Salesforce Transit Center cut down their bus trip into the city by as much as 20 minutes each way. In the East Bay, an MTC initiative called Bay Bridge Forward is bringing us together with Caltrans, the Alameda County Transportation Commission and AC Transit to make it easier for buses to get onto the bridge. These include converting the right shoulder of westbound I-80 to a bus-only lane, adding a carpool lane to westbound I-580 and modifying the Powell Street interchange in Emeryville to speed buses through.