For years, the lawful majority of Muni riders have been infuriated with the onslaught of brazen fare evaders who push their way onto the back exits of buses and other vehicles and ride free seemingly with no consequences. It now appears as if these cheaters are costing Muni — and San Francisco taxpayers — no less than $19 million per year, according to the first large-scale study tracking such losses.
Between the end of April and mid-July, Muni ticket inspectors checked some 41,000 passengers on 1,100 vehicle runs across The City. They found that nearly one in 10 riders had no valid proof of payment. Half the cheats had no proof at all and about one-quarter had expired or altered fare receipts.
By comparing the total evaded fares to the total paid fares for that period, it was easy to calculate Muni’s losses at roughly $19 million annually. The inspections also revealed that fare evasion happened most often during the evening commute, and the bulk of illegal boardings was reported along the most heavily traveled thoroughfares: Market Street, Mission Street and Van Ness Avenue.
To Muni’s credit, it has long acknowledged the serious nature of fare evasion and made some attempts to fix it. This past summer, the Municipal Transportation Agency conducted successful stings citywide. Police and other municipal officials also helped, with Supervisor Bevan Dufty leading the push that increased the fine for fare evasion from $50 to $75.
Currently, Muni is retraining its fare inspectors to use new, hopefully stronger, tactics, and schedules are being changed so that more inspectors will be out on main routes during the evening commute. All these incremental steps are welcome.
But now that the full $19 million impact of annual unpaid fares has been uncovered, this seems the right time for a much more aggressive collection effort. Chronically cash-strapped Muni is in worse shape than usual. The City’s public transit service entered this fiscal year with a $129 million deficit.
The budget was balanced with drastic and unpopular measures. Fares were raised and parking rules became more strict, and some fines were increased.
Even more controversial is that Muni is also floating a proposal to extend the hours of parking meters to Sundays and as late as midnight, piling even greater stress on drivers foolhardy enough to live in or visit San Francisco.
The bottom line is that Muni, The City and taxpayers can no longer afford to write off $19 million in unpaid rides every year. We now know how much it is worth investing to collect the fares owed. Hiring substantially more inspectors and holding them accountable should be able to pay for itself.