Garcia: Cash-strapped Muni catches discount fever 

If ever someone was looking for a transportation discount, Muni has the ticket for you. And a token, and a transfer and if you fit the bill, all manner of free passes.

A funny thing happened to San Francisco’s public transportation system, as its chief executives looked to see whether it would need another $150 million to run properly or whether it should be operated without any fares at all. It discovered that there are enough discount tickets and other forms of passes used by the system that it would take a genius to figure out — let alone a bus driver trying to make a schedule while 30 passengers board.

I know this because it’s all contained in a book on fare policy put together by the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency that contains all the tickets, passes, tokens, transfer and intra-transit link stubs used by Muni — a snapshot of the agency’s fare collection history including the rules for those who ride free.

And everyone who has seen the book, which I now have in my possession (and that is another story) has the same reaction as Mayor Gavin Newsom, who set his eyes on it not long after he asked transit officials to study eliminating fares on streetcars, city buses and cable cars.

"It’s absolutely incredible," Newsom told me last week. "It’s almost unbelievable. Nobody had any idea of the range of discounts and tickets."

There are class passes, disabled passes, senior passes, youth passes and weekly passes. There are one-day passes, three-day passes and seven-day passes. There is an ADA ticket, an Autelca ticket, an MMX ticket and even a separate Bay to Breakers ticket.

Then there is the whopper of all tickets — the City Pass — which is valid for nine days and allows the holder to ride on any Muni vehicle as well as gain entrance to the de Young Museum, the Academy of Sciences, the Museum of Modern Art and a number of other cultural institutions. And it’s quite a bargain — $54 for an adult for a pass that is worth $108. Tourists apparently are aware of the pass, but no one I know ever heard of it.

Yet that’s just part of the mystery, because it must be truly puzzling to bus and streetcar operators to try and distinguish between all the various passes and tickets and stickers.

MTA spokeswoman Maggie Lynch told me that Muni employees are trained to know the dozens and dozens of various passes used on Muni, but so many of them look so alike it’s like they were cloned at some devilish transportation factory.

Newsom said one of the issues officials are looking at is reducing the number of fare stubs "so that we don’t have an operator trying to identify 50 different tickets while they’re trying to move a bus." Muni’s goal ultimately is to use the TransLink system, in which riders have their fare deducted as they pass by a machine or turnstile.

But that’s still quite a way off and for now it’s up to drivers and station agents to determine which passes are good and which are counterfeit. And judging from the book, some people are spending a fair amount of time at copying centers trying to come up with their own special passes.

Newsom’s idea about investigating free rides on Muni stems from the fact that fare collection accounts for just 22 percent of the transit agency’s annual budget, far below the national average of 34 percent.

"So what we’re really looking at is whether it makes sense to spend $100 to collect $103," Newsom said.

Yet the truth is so many people already ride at discounted rates or for free — and not just fare evaders. The book lists all the people who can ride the rails and buses without any pass, and it’s quite a cast.

Police officers get a free pass, even if they’re not in uniform — all they have to do is show their regulation-size seven-point star. All employees of the Office of Citizen Complaints can hop on board, as well as members of the special patrol police, who have six-point stars. Deputy sheriffs ride for free, as do other peace officers and firefighters — as long as they’re in uniform — and the same goes for parking control officers.

And of course there are all the Muni employees and their dependents, who number in the thousands.

Priests still must pony up their fare when riding, but perhaps showing how antiquated some of Muni’s rules are, nuns get on board without a pass — as long as they’re wearing their habits.

You don’t see that a lot these days, but have faith. It shouldn’t take Muni long to come up with a new pass.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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