SFMTA Suspends Muni Fare Inspection Stings

4204725715_d7212dcdbf.jpgSFMTA transit fare inspectors. Flickr photo: Troy Holden

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has announced an abrupt change to its Muni fare enforcement program. Starting immediately, transit fare inspectors (TFIs) and the San Francisco Police Department will suspend high-profile "saturation" stings in which groups of TFIs and uniformed police officers descend on buses in groups to check passenger fares.

The SFMTA made the move after discussions with the Immigrant Rights Commission and the Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs. According to SFMTA Executive Director Nat Ford, the raids caused confusion and fear among riders, some of whom thought they were immigration raids.

Ford said the saturation operations are being suspended until the SFMTA can further educate riders about the proof-of-payment program. Until recently, fare inspectors rarely boarded buses, mostly targeting Muni Metro light-rail vehicles.

Regular fare inspections, which don't involve the police, will continue on buses and trains. During the period from July 2009 to March 2010, about 20 percent of all fare inspections took place during saturation stings, while the rest occurred during normal checks. SFPD Deputy Chief John Murphy, who coordinates with SFMTA's security staff, said the saturation operations are scheduled by the SFMTA, which then brings SFPD along to provide backup.

In the wake of this change, the SFMTA will work with the Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs to further train TFIs, "with an emphasis placed on cultural and linguistic competency in serving  immigrant communities," according to an SFMTA release.

"This is what should have happened a long time ago," said Emily Lee of the Chinese Progressive Association, which has sought to end the police department's involvement in fare inspections. The raids had created an intimidating atmosphere for Muni riders who don't speak English, said Lee, and were especially concerning in light of the recent passage of the new immigration law in Arizona.

At present, out of 46 inspectors, eight are fluent in Spanish, five are fluent in Cantonese, three in Tagalog, and one each in Arabic, Hindi, Samoan, Nigerian and Vietnamese.

Donaji Lona, an organizer for People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), said the proof-of-payment enforcement program should be further revised so that TFIs don't wear uniforms that could be mistaken for police uniforms, even during regular fare inspections.

The saturation stings have been especially problematic, she said, since police officers were present. "Many people thought it was a raid," said Lona, who knows of two people who face deportation after police officers asked for their identification during such raids.

Lona and Lee said increasing fares are putting pressure on low-income riders to choose between paying fares and risking a $75 fine -- or not taking the bus at all. "Some people have even found it cheaper to buy a car and drive than to pay for their whole family to ride the bus," said Lona.

Several concerns remain about the proof-of-payment program, including the transfer policy. In the past, said Lona, riders were able to board the bus with just a few minutes left on their 90-minute bus transfer. As long as they boarded before it expired, they didn't face a fine. When the SFMTA started sending TFIs to check transfers on buses, they failed to educate riders that they'd now need to finish their ride -- not just start it -- before the transfer expires, she said.

A recent SFMTA report found that fare evasion was down as a result of the POP program's expansion to buses. At the time, the SFMTA also announced it was considering revisions to the program, including the possibility of extending its 90-minute transfer policy to reflect longer trip times.