Should Muni raise fares in a crisis?

MTA continues to discuss price hikes, forcing advocates to scramble to respond.

Transit justice advocates in San Francisco are left with more questions after San Francisco ordered a “shelter-in-place” directive in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This public health emergency overlaps with the beginning of San Francisco’s budget season, and while the budget is typically a time for organized advocacy and large turnout to lobby at City Hall, this unprecedented emergency has compelled community members and advocates to heed the city’s advice to practice social distancing and limit non-essential travel.

Should Muni fares go up just when people can least afford it?

As a founding member of the Transit Justice Coalition, SOMCAN has been advocating for free and reduced bus fares as well as reliable and safe service for this budget cycle, just as momentum for free public transportation has started to gain steam. Supervisor Dean Preston also campaigned on a platform that included Free Muni and has introduced legislation to oppose Muni fare hikes proposed in the SFMTA budget, arguing that fare increases would decrease ridership and overburden Muni riders. A compelling UC report from 2018 also supports the point that increasing transit fares decreases ridership.

However, to adhere to the city’s orders, an action organized by SOMCAN and other transit justice advocates to push for free and reduced fares, address the experiences of Muni riders, and discuss the consequences of increased Muni fares at the SFMTA Board of Directors meeting was effectively cancelled on Tuesday afternoon.

So advocates were dismayed that SFMTA continued to hold its Board of Directors Meeting on Tuesday to discuss the proposed FY 2021-2022 Budget (which of course, discusses fare increases) for board and public feedback, considering the public health orders leave limited opportunity for community members to issue public comment and provide important input directly to the Board. Instead, SFMTA has instructed the public to email the agency and attend a virtual open house on March 19th to ask questions and bring up concerns.

Though voting on the budget isn’t scheduled until April 7th (which is coincidentally the same day that the “shelter-in-place” order may end), with a second opportunity for the SFMTA Board to act on the budget if needed on April 20th, advocates are concerned that important budget decisions that affect Muni fare increases will be made without enough face time with the public, especially if stringent social distancing measures are still in place throughout April. To add onto that, the SFMTA Budget timeline is short; SFMTA is scheduled to submit its balanced budget to the Board of Supervisors on May 1st, just six weeks from now.

“The SFMTA always says that service will suffer if we don’t raise fares, but we’re already suffering,” said PJ Eugenio, SOMCAN’s transit justice organizer. “SFMTA needs to stop deciding the future of public transportation internally and start deciding it with the communities that they are serving.”

What complicates matters even further are the drastic financial impacts of COVID-19. Many San Franciscans are losing jobs and many are wondering how they will be able to buy necessities and pay rent, utilities, mortgages, and the cost to upkeep their small businesses. We don’t know how this will impact residents’ livelihoods for the coming months as this public health crisis continues to take shape.

Gay Shame, a direct-action group that is also part of the Transit Justice We spoke to one of the organizers of Gay Shame, a direct-action group that is also part of the Transit Justice, and they shared:

“Most of the people in Gay Shame are Black and Brown with limited income and are going to be directly affected by these fare increases and the fallout of the pandemic. The people using public transportation aren’t the billionaires. It’s absurd to think in a city with more billionaires per capita than anywhere else in the entire world, that we can’t get it together. We need to follow the lead that’s been set in places like Kansas City and Olympia and other countries that have instituted free fares for all.”

While SOMCAN and other advocates have called for free and reduced fares for Muni over the past few months, a series of tweets by SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin suggest that the agency thinks this may not be possible right now because the pandemic is also compounding SFMTA’s budget concerns. According to Tumlin, COVID-19 and the directives in place have led to a sharp ridership drop and Muni is losing $1 million a week in fares.

Tumlin writes: (@jeffreytumlin)

“We were poised for major service improvements. But now we are making contingency plans for cutting service.

In our budget, are vulnerable San Franciscans best served by cutting fares or slashing service?

Every (government’s) agency’s values are only expressed in its budget. Do we cut fares or service?

(Government) isn’t your magical wish-fulfillment machine. I have no queer magic wand. My budget must balance,” he wrote.

After a lot of community engagement, the budget proposal has been updated to put forth an equity plan to address fare pricing for all mediums, but advocates don’t think it goes far enough. Under SFMTA’s equity proposal, monthly Muni passes would increase from $81 to $94 by 2022, and monthly Muni passes with SF BART service would increase from $98 to $113 by 2022. However, this equity plan also proposes extending free Muni to all youth and creates a pass for people experiencing homelessness.

According to SOMCAN Executive Director Angelica Cabande, since 2005, Muni fares have increased by 100 percent, and this has been steadily increasing approximately at about 7 percent each year, yet patrons haven’t seen improvements in services.

“Our definition of equity isn’t the same as SFMTA. What is proposed right now may have no increase on cash fares, but a massive increase on monthly passes. Monthly passes are used by the working class and students. That is not equity… We need the department to hear us louder and clearer: No cuts on service, no cuts on jobs, no fare increases across the board for any payment options,” Cabande said. She was one of only five speakers to show up to give public comment regarding the budget at SFMTA’s meeting on Tuesday.

“A really important group is being left out of the conversation and that’s the youth,” said K.I Finao, lead community organizer with the Young Women’s Freedom Center. “A lot of them may not know where to give public comment if not in person, and they’re the ones heavily impacted by fare increases and other decisions regarding policing and fare enforcement.

“A lot of Black and Brown youth that I engage with feel unsafe on Muni, and they’re constantly targeted by Muni patrol and ambassadors who look like police officers and ask for ID for no good reason,” they said. “They should be included in these conversations and taking away an opportunity to allow for that is unbalanced and wrong. SFMTA should realize this isn’t a game for a lot of people. They don’t know what it’s like to walk in others’ shoes. For some, a few extra dollars for fare might mean sacrificing a meal.”

All of this really begs the question— how is it appropriate in this time of crisis for SFMTA to even discuss increasing fares at all? People are already struggling to afford fares, and when we look at how local governments and the federal government are scrambling to find economic  solutions (like UBI) to keep Americans afloat during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s difficult to understand why conversations about putting more financial strain on working people are even happening right now. At this time of crisis, it’s fair to ask: Should SFMTA even be talking about raising prices of an essential service like Muni if they’re in fact concerned about equity?