Muni to resume fare enforcement with ‘reimagined’ approach

Mayor calls on The City to do ‘everything we can’ to save SFMTA as budget crisis looms

Muni passengers now will have to pay to ride starting Tuesday, or risk receiving a citation.

Fare enforcement halted at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when Muni service was cut by more than 30 percent and fare officers were redeployed toward other emergency response roles such as cleaning vehicles and dispensing personal protective equipment.

Now, with projected budget deficits of $68 million and $168 million over the current two-year budget cycle, farebox earnings down roughly 95 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels and the prospect of laying off as many as 1,226 full-time employees on the table, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is desperate for every dollar of revenue it can collect.

“In order for us to survive, we are utterly dependent on getting everyone to pay their fair share on Muni,” SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin told the Board of Directors Tuesday. “It is one of our primary sources of revenue. Without it, our services don’t work.”

‘Reimagined’ approach to enforcement

SFMTA announced a “reimagined” approach to fare enforcement in September that focuses on compliance rather than enforcement, with officers directed to issue citations only as a last resort.

Advocates for free public transit have long said fare citations — and even fares more broadly — disproportionately impact persons of color, riders experiencing homelessness or who earn low incomes and those who are mobility impaired. SFMTA’s previous fare enforcement model had earned a reputation in some circles for criminalizing poverty.

That said, The City can’t readily track the demographic information of those people who are cited, a fact that Tumlin said has frustrated him.

“This is something that we very much want to know, not only for income equity reasons but also racial equity reasons,” he told the board.

Farebox revenue accounts for approximately 20 percent of SFMTA’s annual revenues, and Tumlin insists there’s a way to “thread the really challenging needle” between making those who can afford to pay do so in order to fund service while those who rely on Muni for critical mobility needs and can’t afford it aren’t priced out or cited.

Under the new approach launched Tuesday, inspectors, sporting a civilian-like uniform of a black collared short-sleeved shirt and a Muni face mask, will spend more time on bus routes in an effort to counter previous concentrations of citations issued near SFMTA buildings.

They will also ask passengers to show proof of payment as they board rather than mid-trip in order to avoid delays. Should they find someone who hasn’t yet paid, inspectors will walk passengers through their payment options and demonstrate how they can enroll in discount or free Muni programs should they be unable to afford the fare.

Tumlin added the agency has broadened eligibility requirements for discounted fare in light of the hardship caused by the pandemic so that anyone who is enrolled in one of The City’s homeless services programs or can prove unemployment is able to pay a reduced rate.

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.

“Our goal for fare enforcement is not to raise revenue through citation fines, but rather to ensure compliance with fare payment,” Tumlin said.

Transit agency at risk

Fare enforcement’s return comes at a time when SFMTA’s very survival is at risk.

Sobering budget realities for the next two years revealed this week are likely to include mass layoffs of frontline workers as early as this fiscal year followed by even deeper cuts in an already-whittled down Muni service model.

The stark reality is that without adequate revenue, there can be no Muni service, officials said.

Mayor London Breed on Tuesday called on San Francisco to do “everything we can” in order to save the agency and make public transportation a “top priority” in order to ensure the long-term viability of San Francisco.

“We are facing the gutting of a basic city service that our residents rely on and that our economy needs to recover,” Breed said during a COVID-19 press conference Tuesday.

Looking at SFMTA’s budget, about 20 percent of its annual revenues pre-pandemic came from farebox payments, making it an important source of funds in even the most optimistic of years.

Total farebox earnings never match the number of riders in a given period because a significant number of passengers qualify for discounted or free Muni and others continue to evade fares altogether.

However, the pandemic has exacerbated these existing challenges.

Take last July, for example, when Muni recorded 18,799,450 passenger boardings and yielded 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.

In other words, more people aren’t paying, and Tumlin said it’s become clear “we can’t rely on the honor system” and instead need to make sure people are paying their way on Muni, if they can.

That 75 cent per boarding drop is where Tumlin thinks fare officers and the agency can make progress.

He said he has “no interest” in revenues from citations — evaders are often subject to fines of more than $100 — but believes the “revolutionized” approach to enforcement can help bridge the gap without penalizing vulnerable populations.

All inspectors have been provided with de-escalation training, and they’re well-versed in the full array of social services offered by The City, according to Tumlin, all to ensure their safety and instill a more sympathetic approach to riders found to be evading fares.

SFMTA’s desperation is real, and Tumlin called both for a collective to fare payment, if possible, and “a stronger sense in civility” on Muni in order to help the agency get through the coming years intact.

“It is not a situation that I want to be in, and yet it is our reality,” Tumlin said.

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