The Central Puget Sound Regional Fare Coordination (RFC) project involves seven agencies (six transit operators and one ferry system) agreeing on a standard fare card medium, coordinating the associated business and operational processes, centralizing certain activities such as "back office" financial functions required for fare revenue reconciliation between agencies, and managing a contractor that is providing the system installation and support. The goal of the RFC project is to offer public transportation customers in the Puget Sound region a single electronic fare medium – a fare card – that will enable them to travel seamlessly across the region using multiple transportation service providers. Fare integration across agencies was not an objective per se. The Interlocal Agreement that guides this project was signed April 29, 2003. Overall governance of the RFC project is vested in a decision-making Joint Board composed of the "Chief Executive Officer" from each of the partner agencies.
This lesson is based on the experience of the Puget Sound partners in implementing their regional fare card program. Project staff and partner agency representatives were interviewed and data collected primarily during the period from February 2003 through July 2005. The lessons learned that are represented herein reflect the findings from this evaluation and do not necessarily represent Agency conclusions or recommendations.
The organizational approach used in the Puget Sound RFC project is based on a "consensus" model, as contrasted with an "efficiency" model in which one agency manages the development process and makes key project decisions. When choosing an organizational approach, a region must carefully consider the attributes and consequences of each model.
In the case of the RFC project, the smaller partners did not want the larger agencies to dominate the process and decision-making. An efficiency model might have placed King County Metro in a lead role, where it might even have defined major technical and institutional project characteristics and tested the system on its fleet before other agencies agreed to a partnership. However, King County Metro did not try to promote this approach given the significant liabilities associated with it, and due to the importance to all agencies of fare policies, customer relations and fare technology, the partners agreed upon an approach of equal representation in the project design and development process. Without the protections inherent in the egalitarian structure (the consensus model), some of these agencies might never have participated in the project. Early on various methods of weighted voting were considered and rejected, and the Joint Board adopted the principle of one equal vote for each partner, regardless of size, and unanimity was required for most decisions.
More detailed insights associated with a "consensus" model approach to partnership organization include the following:
- Allow each partner an equal say in decision-making in the regional partnership to build trust, understanding and buy-in by ensuring that no one agency will dominate the process.
- Build on past examples of good institutional working relationships and emphasize the values associated with a philosophy of regionalism over individual agency self-interest.
- Be aware of trade-offs associated with the egalitarian structure of the consensus model. With each agency equally involved in decisions and policy, it almost certainly will entail more staff time and cost than a structure with one lead agency.
- Establish a formal agreement, endorsed by the highest levels of management in each agency, that specifies roles, responsibilities and organizational structure in support of the consensus model. The Interlocal Agreement served that purpose for the Puget Sound RFC.
- Adopt strong project management procedures that allow for clear goals, plans and schedules to help keep the project on track, and provide adequate staffing and resources to a regional team to coordinate and lead a project of this magnitude.
- Seek a balance between attention to management of the vendor contract and to management of the project development process.
The experience of a "consensus" model partnership for the Puget Sound RFC project exemplified a number of notable characteristics:
- The structure of a "consensus" model requires that each agency take an active role in reviewing system design decisions and documents and reaching agreement on vendor directives. This clearly multiplies the amount of work required to develop the project, and also makes the work more complicated because of the need to reach consensus among a variety of agencies with differing concerns.
- The "consensus" model worked reasonably well throughout the initial stages of the project development process, during which high-level aspects of the system design were agreed between the partner agencies and with the system vendor. However, these stages of the process were characterized by schedule slippage and by a very heavy and unanticipated workload on the partner agency staff. As the project moved towards preparing and reviewing the detailed final design documents, these problems were exacerbated, to a point where the continued viability of the initial organizational arrangement was questioned.
- The agencies' concerns about equal representation have hindered the establishment of a strong project management function. The Interlocal Agreement does not provide for a project manager position, and only mentions project management responsibilities of the Contract Administrator in general terms. In effect, there are seven project managers, represented by each of the partner agencies’ Site Managers. The Contract Administrator and Site Managers have concentrated on administering the complex and detailed vendor contract. While the Regional Team includes a Technical Manager responsible for schedule management and agency coordination on all technical matters, there has been a lack of focus on standard project management activities involving project planning, scope, schedule, direction, and guidance of the Subject Area Advisory Teams (SAATs).
- The partner agencies have begun to consider the creation of a stronger project management function, although specific details have not been decided at the time of this writing. Possibilities under consideration include increasing the involvement and authority of members of the Joint Board, or hiring a consultant to serve as project manager. The Regional Team has worked much of the time with limited staff, and only recently received Board approval to fill an additional position of Regional Implementation Manager to help with their intense workload. The importance can not be overstated of establishing a regional team that has adequate staffing and resources to support the extensive regional coordination and leadership workload of a project of this magnitude.
- Agencies in the Puget Sound region are strongly predisposed toward regional collaboration, but of course each RFC project partner is also dedicated to meeting the needs of its own agency and customers. Given the differences in the characteristics of each agency and its customer base, the consensus model required considerable time to allow for each partner to express its opinions and needs and work those through a collaborative process toward acceptable compromises and decisions. Nevertheless, the partner agencies believe that the end result will be worth the extra time and effort, and given the strong sense of regionalism in the Puget Sound, it is unlikely that a regional participant program across all of these agencies would have been feasible under any other organizational approach.
Locations considering implementing a regional fare card program will need to consider the different organizational approaches that have been tried in other programs of this type and understand and balance the values that each partner brings to the regional entity. Efficiency could potentially be gained by vesting program leadership in one of the partner agencies. However, that would require the other agencies to accept an arrangement with which they and their customers might not be comfortable over the long run. The alternative approach, adopted in this case, seeks to assure that every partner’s interests are given equal weight in the final decisions and arrangements. While this process is more time consuming, costly, and demanding of all partners in the near term, it fosters pride and ownership in the resultant regional system over the long run.