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Muni and other agencies consider basing fares on income

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Payment puzzle: Two local transit agencies are studying the possibility of basing fares solely on passengers’ ability to pay. Only a few transit agencies across the nation currently offer discounts for needy riders. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • Payment puzzle: Two local transit agencies are studying the possibility of basing fares solely on passengers’ ability to pay. Only a few transit agencies across the nation currently offer discounts for needy riders.

Agencies eye basing fares on income, not age or disability
A struggling 19-year-old service worker barely earning enough to make ends meet has to pay $64 for her monthly Muni pass. A wealthy 66-year-old homeowner from Pacific Heights can purchase that same fare for $22.

Seem fair?

With debate swirling in recent months over a proposal to provide free Muni service for The City’s low-income youths, a larger regional conversation has begun about the possibility of basing some transit fares on a customer’s ability to pay.

“It makes all the sense in the world to provide discounts based on need, instead of age,” said Ed Reiskin, director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni. “Right now, we’d give almost a 70 percent fare discount to Warren Buffet. There is not a whole lot of logic in that.”

Spurred on by the debate surrounding the free Muni youth proposal, Reiskin said, the agency will issue a report on potential new fare policies in time for the early 2013 budget season.

The agency could get some guidance from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the region’s lead transit planning body. The MTC is currently conducting its own $1 million study of the issue.

“We have transit agencies that give volume discounts for passengers — basically, if a rider can afford to buy a bunch of trips, they get a deal,” commission spokesman Randy Rentschler said. “We need to ask ourselves, if we’re giving discounts, what kind should they be? Should it be for volume, or should it be based on economic need?”

If the commission and some of its regional transit partners pursued needs-based fare discounts, they would certainly be industry trailblazers.

The SFMTA currently provides a 50 percent discount for its Lifeline pass — a $32 monthly fare available for residents whose income equals or falls below 200 percent of federal poverty levels. However, only 19,535 passengers use that system, which is burdensome and requires a lot of paperwork for the agency and its customers.

Reiskin said he’d like to develop a fare system that cuts down on the red tape and provides discounts for those who need them, and full-fare rates for those who don’t. Reiskin said the program ideally would be cost-neutral, with prosperous older riders paying increased fares and lower-income adults paying less.

While Muni and a handful of smaller transit agencies provide needs-based discount, the expanded proposal being pursued by the SFMTA would likely be the most robust program in the country.

Such reforms could introduce more passengers to the system, Reiskin said, while reducing the number of riders who pay with cash, which typically slows down boarding. The plan could actually speed up service on Muni and make the system more efficient and cost-effective.

Reiskin said it would probably be easier for low-income passengers to pay a standard monthly base fare, but prices also could be tiered based on individual earning levels. In either case, the agency must comply with federal law requiring a 50 percent discount for disabled and senior passengers. At $22, the agency’s monthly pass for senior and disabled riders now offers a 66 percent discount.

Public services such as power and telephone service already provide needs-based discounts, Rentschler noted. With the advent of the Clipper card, the regional fare system administered by the MTC, he said the Bay Area has the infrastructure to come up with a needs-based discount service. But the competing policies of the MTC’s 26 transit agencies could complicate the issue, he said, so it would be important for the region to determine and agree on a cohesive discount fare policy.

Tom Radulovich, a board member at BART, noted that his agency provides discounts for parking at the agency’s lots, but doesn’t provide similar deals for its transit service. He said there is plenty of inequity in the agency’s fare policy.

“A 13-year-old is paying the same as a 61-year-old,” Radulovich said. “That probably isn’t right.”

While Radulovich called needs-based discounts an admirable goal, he added that any such plan would face plenty of challenges. Although the Clipper card provides the Bay Area with a regional fare system, the technology behind the program often moves slowly. Clipper’s fare-based algorithms are proprietary to Cubic, the private contractor that manufactures the card, and Radulovich said pricing policy changes can take years to implement.

Also, there is a stigma attached to riders who hold reduced-fare passes, he said. And although the MTC has embarked on a fare equity study, Radulovich said, the agency hasn’t established strong leadership in that area.

Any needs-based fare program also would have to assuage the considerable doubts of senior transit passengers, who could revolt against any proposal that reduces their discounts, said James Chionsini, a health care planning organizer at Senior Disability and Action.

“Many middle-class seniors are retired and on fixed incomes — they don’t need to see those incomes shrink,” Chionsini said. “They’re dealing with rising medicine costs, rising housing costs. Just because they’re not low-income doesn’t mean they’re not struggling. We support any program that increases access for transit riders. It just shouldn’t come at the expense of seniors.”

Despite barriers facing the plan, a needs-based discount is an admirable goal to pursue, said Cheryl Brinkman, a member of the SFMTA board of directors.

“If our goal is to make transit accessible, especially for people of low income, it shouldn’t be based solely on age, either young or old,” Brinkman said. “I love my parents, and they love getting the senior fare when they are in town, but they can afford to pay a full fare. Let’s spend the money where the need is the greatest and let those who can afford to pay full fare do so, regardless of age.”

wreisman@sfexaminer.com