Muni fare inspectors, shown here in 2019 and out of action since the pandemic began, are coming back, with a focus on high ridership lines. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Fare inspectors returning to Muni with new uniform, different approach

Absent thus far during the pandemic, Muni fare operators will be back on buses as early as October with a “reimagined” approach to fare enforcement that focuses on compliance first rather than enforcement, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency announced last week.

Inspectors, sporting a civilian-like uniform of a black collared short-sleeved shirt and a Muni face mask, will ride buses for longer and ask passengers to show proof of payment as they board rather than mid-trip in order to avoid delays.

“It has become counterproductive to wait until a bus is full before our inspectors get on just to ask customers to show their proof of payment,” SFMTA spokeswoman Kristen Holland said of the previous strategy. “We want people to pay as they enter so we don’t have to interrupt their trip.”

They’ll spend most of their time on routes with the highest ridership — during the pandemic, those are the routes being used by essential workers and transit-dependent riders — and will hop on board in groups of three at the beginning of the line or at a rest stop before riding all or a segment of the route.

While one person checks on the operator, the other two will ride alongside passengers.

They’ll begin issuing citations starting Dec. 1, but only as a last resort if a rider refuses to comply with payment or enrollment in a discounted fare program.

“There may be times when a patron is asked to deboard before their desired stop,” Holland said of the former practice of conducting a full inspection and removing anyone without proof of payment. “Our compliance model will help minimize this as much as possible by monitoring payment as people board.”

Even if cited, customers can get their first violation waived if they show they’ve enrolled in a free Muni program within 30 days of receiving the citation.

Inspectors started working alongside community ambassadors at stations and kiosks last week to hand out masks and educate riders around coronavirus guidelines. Next month, they will start boarding buses again, but only to conduct inspections, explain fare programs and payment options to anyone found not to have paid and engage with operators and passengers about their safety and wellbeing.

The fight for free Muni

SFMTA’s fines and fees program has been a years-long work in progress, and advocates for universal free public transit say this latest iteration doesn’t go far enough to mitigate their concerns about criminalizing poverty.

“For our residents who are on fixed income, getting a fare evasion ticket is a significant blow to their financial stability,” said Javier Bremond, an economic equity organizer with the Community Housing Partnership. “This is merely an aesthetic change to an unjust practice of punishing people who cannot afford to ride public transit in San Francisco.

Ticket sales generate about 20 percent of SFMTA’s annual earnings, which the agency has historically used as its rationale for why fare enforcement — and even ticket fares more broadly — are necessary.

If earnings for every ride were considered important before the pandemic, they’re increasingly so now, as the agency faces a projected $300 million revenue loss over the next two fiscal years.

Fare payment has generated roughly $900,000 monthly since March when ridership plummeted and fare inspectors were redeployed to disaster response work such as cleaning vehicles and preparing personal protective equipment kits.

Last July, Muni recorded 18,799,450 passenger boardings yielding a total of $17,768,861 for 95 cents per boarding. By comparison, July of this year had 4,207,950 passenger boardings and collected a total of $860,628, or 20 cents per boarding.

However, the entirety of the 75 cent drop in average earnings per boarding can’t be attributed to fare evaders, Holland said. Many pandemic travelers are essential workers and/or transit-dependent, which means they qualify for free or low cost Muni rides.

Bremond says that this argument — “that we depend on fares to operate” — should be met with questions around why San Francisco “as one of the richest cities in the country” can’t make its transit available to all residents.

“It should be free for everyone,” he said.

The fare inspection program employs 46 inspectors and supervisors for a total cost to the agency of $6.8 million annually, according to the agency.

COVID-19-related SFMTA budget cuts have led to the slashing of the $1 million annual employee wellness program and the $2 million Free Muni for Youth expansion.

Though fare evaders may face a fine of more than $100, the agency has introduced a number of fee waiver programs, expanded eligibility for discounted fares and implemented payment plans over the last few years that it believes counter advocate concerns around unfairly impacting low income riders.

The most recent iteration, the agency says, should help achieve equitable enforcement, in part, by following ridership data instead of evasion incident numbers.

“So, if you see Muni inspectors in the Mission, you will also see them in the Presidio. If they are on the 14 Mission, they will also be on a line like the 1 California,” its website says.

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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