SFMTA Board Considers New Muni Fare Discounts

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Muni fares will automatically increase with inflation as part of the SFMTA’s next fiscal year budget, but the agency’s board is exploring ways to fine-tune its fare adjustments to keep the system accessible to low-income riders [PDF]. The board is also considering higher fares for cash-paying riders in an effort to speed up boarding.

The latter measure could come in the form of delayed fare hikes for Clipper card payments, to create an incentive for riders to use the more efficient medium. About 55 percent of Muni riders still pay with cash, according to the SFMTA. Board members said yesterday that they favored the idea as a way to reduce delays caused by cash handling.

“Folks, if you’re not on Clipper card yet, you’ve gotta get with the program,” said board member Joél Ramos, who bemoaned “the delay of dwelling time that it takes to get everyone on board.”

By default, inflation indexing would increase general single-ride Muni fares from $2 to $2.25 in July, but the Clipper incentive option would apply the 25-cent increase to cash fares only. Discounted cash fares for youth, seniors, and disabled riders would go up from $0.75 to $1.00. Adult monthly passes which include intra-city BART rides are also set to go up from $76 to $78, then $81 in fiscal year 2016.

Free Muni for low-income youth, a program originally implemented as a two-year pilot, is now set to be funded for at least two more years, thanks to a $6.8 million grant from Google. The SFMTA is also considering expanding the program to include 18-year-old students (currently the cutoff age is 17), as well as free Muni programs for low-income seniors and people with disabilities. Several dozen speakers urged the SFMTA board yesterday to adopt those programs.

The push has spurred discussion at the agency about tailoring Muni fare discounts based on personal income, rather than age or physical ability. Traditionally, monthly passes for youth, seniors, and people with disabilities have been discounted at 33 percent of the regular fare. The SFMTA proposed increasing that to 50 percent, using the revenue to help fund new free pass programs for low-income riders. Board members said they liked the idea, though it wouldn’t fully underwrite the expanded free pass programs, and said finding the rest of the funding for those programs would be a major challenge.

Of the other targeted fare increases put on the table, the greatest opposition has arisen to hikes on the F-Line to as much as $6. SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin said that proposal is based on the higher costs of running historic streetcars compared to regular Muni vehicles (similar to the costs of cable cars).

Supervisors David Chiu and Scott Wiener sent a joint letter to the SFMTA today opposing fare hikes on the F, saying that it “disregards the critical role the F plays in San Francisco’s transit system for everyday Muni riders,” and that it “appears to assume that F-line riders are largely tourists.”

The SFMTA has also proposed increasing fares for multi-day visitor passports and Muni’s express lines, on the basis that they provide a “greater benefit” to their riders. Board members generally said they didn’t favor an express line hike.

Board members didn’t discuss positions on the mayor’s proposal to reverse Sunday parking meters, though Vice Chair Cheryl Brinkman requested data on parking citation rates for Sundays last year.

The SFMTA’s operating budget has an expected surplus of $22.2 million for FY 2015 and a $15 million surplus for FY 2016. Reiskin said that although using the money to increase Muni service is an option, the agency still has a dire need to fill its “structural deficit” first, adding staff for vehicle and infrastructure maintenance, Muni operators, and other departments to keep the system working efficiently.

“We need to staff up in order to do these things just to deliver the service plan we have today,” he said.