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San Francisco Ponders Free Muni Passes Due to 'Affordability' Crisis

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

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“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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