Time to Overhaul Funding for Public Transit

The coronavirus crisis has made it abundantly clear that public transit is an essential service. Over 100,000 people in San Francisco still rely on transit every day. Across the Bay Area, 31% of usual transit ridership is what we now call essential workers. Our entire system truly depends on public transit.

At the same time we need Muni to provide essential service, ridership has plummeted, fares have dried up, and there’s a gaping hole in the operating budget. While the federal emergency funds that just passed will help fill that hole, they’re not sufficient, and we’ll be facing another cliff possibly as soon as several months from now.

In the recently approved SFMTA Budget, riders were asked to pick between increased fares or decreased service. Unless changes are made, riders will face the same choice again in two years during the next budget cycle. We need to change the way public transit is funded.

SFMTA’s budget discussions started after the mayor’s Task Force on Muni Reliability presented its recommendations: increased service, increased hiring, investing in a new train control system, transit quick build, vehicle maintenance and replacement, and developing plans for growing service.

Unfortunately, only a small fraction of the Task Force recommendations could be paid for in this budget. SFMTA simply doesn’t have funds to fix hundreds of millions of dollars needed for maintenance or take on new capital projects. There also aren’t enough dollars to hire all the staff needed to expand service. The COVID-19 crisis makes all these calculations even shakier.

Significant public transit funding comes from state and federal programs, but all of that is carefully earmarked for different projects. Muni also gets money from the city’s general fund (supported by property, business, and sales taxes), which will all decline as a result of the coronavirus.

The rest of the budget is made up of fares, fees, and fines — the unrestricted funds SFMTA raises for itself. This bucket is what pays for Muni’s operations. This is why SFMTA is faced with the choice of either raising fares or decreasing service. Without the fare increase, SFMTA will continue to have operator shortages and missed or reduced service.

We’re disappointed we didn’t achieve a full fare freeze in this budget. The single electronic fare, the day pass, and monthly passes are all going up. However, we did achieve some important wins:

  • The $3 cash fare is frozen for the next two years;
  • Free Muni will be offered to all youth, which will help families, and will get kids out of the paperwork traps of proving eligibility or dealing with fines;
  • Free Muni for the unhoused;
  • The adult day pass will be available on board at the farebox, making it broadly accessible;
  • Parking meters will be extended into evenings and on Sundays;
  • Staffing will be scaled up in a such way that Muni should be ready to increase service as funds are identified.

SFMTA’s intention is to catch up with the shortage of operators (and other key positions) and finally get to the level of service they’ve been promising. This isn’t the service increase we need, but it should be a marked change from its infamous delays and missed runs.

We need to find a new way forward. Fare increases and a lack of service increases at a time when San Franciscans are struggling is a devastating blow. But until we change the way we fund public transportation, we will continue to face the same limited choices. We need to secure new, equitable funding sources that guarantee a robust, accessible transit system that is not fare-dependent.

Learn more and get involved!

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