San Francisco Ponders Free Muni Passes Due to ‘Affordability’ Crisis

Muni bus. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)
Muni bus. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

San Francisco transportation officials are considering extending a program that provides free transit to low-income youth to seniors and people with disabilities.

Ed Reiskin, director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, said he proposed the idea in the agency’s upcoming budget in response to the escalating costs of living in the city.

“The mayor has made it pretty clear to all of the departments that he’s seeking ideas for how to create affordability,” Reiskin said.

Nearly a year ago, the SFMTA began a 16-month pilot program that provides free Muni passes to low and moderate-income youth between the ages of 5 and 17. The agency is proposing to extend it and put 18-year-olds on the eligibility list.

“When we first started discussing the free Muni for low-income youth a couple of years ago, a number of folks from the senior community came forward and said ‘hey, what about us?’” said Reiskin.

“There are seniors who have very limited means,” he went on, “and if we could facilitate their lifestyle by helping them get around the city inexpensively that would be a good thing for us to be able to do.”

The SFMTA issues about 17,000 discounted passes to seniors each month, and about 7,000 to people with disabilities. The discounted passes generate an estimated $8 million in revenue a year.

Jessica Lehman, executive director of Senior & Disability Action, said many elderly and disabled riders don’t own cars and rely on public transit as their primary mode of transportation. But for some, discounted fares represent a luxury they cannot afford.

“Even when you’re talking about discount fares, seniors and people with disabilities often don’t have money for that,” she said. “If you’re living on SSI or social security and you’re only getting about $800 a month, we all know how expensive rent is right now, and it’s only going up.”

The price of transit, she said, is a timely topic considering the housing displacement affecting low-income San Franciscans, and the controversy over “Google buses.”

“We’re privatizing our system and really privileging certain groups of people to make sure somebody can get around easily and free, and yet we’re saying that we can’t provide free public transit for communities that are struggling,” Lehman said.

She added: “If we really value everyone who lives in the city and we want seniors and people with disabilities to not only stay here, but to be able to get out of their homes, to be seen, to be active in the community, then free transit is such a basic step.”

While the SFMTA’s budget picture is better than it has been in years, Reiskin stressed that expanding the free Muni program to low-income elderly and disabled riders was only a proposal in the agency’s 2015-16 budget.

“We’d like to provide more Muni service to everybody and to the extent that we take away revenues that we have currently we have less ability to do that,” he said.

One idea to fund the program, he said, would be to raise the fares for those who can afford to pay. While Muni gives seniors and people with disabilities a two-thirds discount on monthly passes, Reiskin said most transit agencies only give fifty percent.

Rather than give discounts to seniors and youth based on age, Reiskin said the SFTMA should do it based on need.

“If we were to increase the fares for those that can pay and decrease or eliminate the fares for those that can’t, that to me would be a more equitable arrangement,” he said.

But Lehman doubted it would be worth it, given the administrative burdens of determining eligibility.

“The revenue is not that big a difference anyway, so why not make it a blanket free Muni for seniors and people with disabilities,” she said.

The SFMTA Board of Directors must still approve it. Tom Nolan, the chair, said he “would love to see it happen.”

“I really believe the system is for everybody. Everybody needs it in the city, specially people who are elderly, disabled and struggling young folks. I’m all for it if we can find the money to do it,” Nolan said.

The board is expected to hold its first public hearing on the budget February 18 followed by a series of budget town halls. The soonest the board could adopt a new budget is April 1.

The agency is also considering a proposal to reduce the cost of the monthly Lifeline pass for low-income riders.

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  • PrettyFNgood

    What about those of us living paycheck to paycheck? Barely able to afford anything in the city anymore! It’s not Robin Hood generosity when you take from the poor to give to the poor. How about charging $10/stop on those google buses, not $1/stop! Ever seen a Supervisor riding a bus?

  • FixMuniStopCrime

    So wrong! So many people already ride Muni for Free — by NOT paying and causing problems on Muni, especially youth (under 18th) and thugs! These are the groups that are scaring seniors and disabled to not ride Muni.
    Fix MUNI by charging something (even a little) to EVERYONE! Without skin in the game, no one cares. We are NOT a communist city or a socialist city.
    Reiskin and Lehman are Marxist! Tax payers pay their salary and benefits and they get to decide to spend more of our $$.
    This is sick! It’s not about bleeding workers to pay for takers or those on welfare in society.
    Everyone can work and 50cents to ride muni. Has these 2 spokespeople for Muni (Reiskin and Lehman) ever ridden MUNI’s busy lines — 38, 38L 31, etc and Experienced ALL the people who DON”T PAY. The graffiti. The garbage and broken seats!
    Why not spend money and budget on making the buses better! NO MORE FREELOADERS!

  • RW

    Some consideration should be made for reappropriating a percentage of the funding from the massive $200 million per year homelessness budget that seems to grow every year without stemming the tide of homelessness in this city. No matter how much more money is spent on the homelessness problem, there are more homeless people every year, and 40% of these homeless arrive in SF as homeless from their city of origin. These homeless do not work, they do not pay for municipal services, they only live off these services, and many of them do so for life. Their priority should be below those who are low income, disabled, or elderly, and certainly below those who are working and struggling and paying for bus fare. It is a slap in the face of everyone that tries to be a contributing member of this society to hike their fees while growing the budget of free services to homeless people being sent here with one way tickets from other cities.

  • greg

    If the seniors can’t afford to pay for the already super cheap senior bus fare, they shouldn’t have retired.

    • http://streetsheetsf.wordpress.com/ Kenneth Dotson

      I would ask if you’re really that much of an idiot but the answer is obvious.

  • http://www.akit.org/ Akit

    Free passes for elderly and disabled passengers is estimated to cost $4 million a year if 50% are eligible, and at least $6 million if 67% are eligible. Source: 2/4/2014 SFMTA Board meeting documents.

    And just how will they generate this cash to burn? By taking more money from us adults. Other than the known higher pass price starting with the July pass, there’s a plan to raise the adult fare to $2.25, adding a $1 surcharge to ride limited and rush hour expresses, adding a surcharge or paying equivalent to Cable Car fare ($6 single ride w/no transfers) to ride the F-Market, and the list goes on.

  • EBSingleParentWithaJob

    The human race in the Bay Area is disgusting to me. Im sure no one will say it out loud but I but if we had a Logan’s Run type society, a very high percentage of this town would choose it to elimitate the marganalized in our society. It’s gross and shameful that there is no compassion for the elderly and the disabled (which includes those with mental illnesses which are not always apparent). There is nothing wrong with a bit of socialism in your heart. I make over 100K, I pay private school tuition, I have to pay the high bay area living too, but you know what, I also believe in giving ones personal time and money and helping those in need. Ying and Yang of life people, be careful of your thoughts or one day you will find yourself or someone you care for in the position of being one of the needy ones.

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