Are Muni customers paying their fares? Here's a detailed look at SFMTA's deep financial crisis

Lyanne Melendez Image
Friday, June 9, 2023
Are Muni customers paying their fares? Here's what we found out
Are San Francisco Muni customers paying their fares? Here's a detailed look at SFMTA's deep financial crisis.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- San Francisco's transit system faces a crisis unless the state steps in to secure additional funding for Muni. But before releasing any money, the state has made it clear it wants to see an effort being made by Muni to prove it's on the path toward being financially healthy.

So, ABC7 News wanted to confirm what we already suspected: Muni is losing millions because some people don't pay the fare.

On a clear San Francisco Thursday morning, ABC7 News reporter Lyanne Melendez decided to ride on the oldest publicly operated transit system in America, Muni -- paying, of course, using a Clipper card.

It's reassuring to see that most Muni lines are back to near pre-pandemic levels.

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For months, public transit agencies like BART and Muni have said they're running out of money, and fast.

Also encouraging is this recent statement by the executive director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency who oversees Muni:

"Most people are still paying just as they did pre-COVID," said Jeffrey Tumplin.

Paying, did he say? Because we had our doubts, we decided to record who paid and who didn't.

The first two women who got on the bus after us did not pay.

Neither did another man who entered through the backdoor of the bus.

We recorded a couple walking right on without paying.

One man attempted to pay but for some reason, his Clipper card never worked.

An older woman paid with her Clipper card but the person behind her did not.

We counted five people getting on the bus and passing the driver without paying.

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That's $12.50 that Muni did not collect from those five people.

We estimated that about three-fourths of the people who got on that bus never paid.

A Muni driver told us that a good day for her is when 40% of passengers pay.

"I'm honest, but if I was really pressed and didn't have anything to pay with, I would do the same thing," said Louis Gamache, a Muni rider who did pay.

Some were candid about their reason for not paying.

"I just think post-pandemic, it's kinda like the norm as far as I've seen, especially when this goes up and down Market Street. I don't know, people don't pay, I don't know," said Alex, who only gave us his first name.

But SFMTA Director Tumlin clarified that there are other ways to pay that, perhaps, we didn't catch on camera.

"What we've done is invent some new fare instruments. Right now you can download Muni Mobile and pay with your phone rather than pay with your Clipper card," he said.

Melendez: "Have you ever heard of the Muni Mobile app?"

Muni rider: "Yeah."

Melendez: "Do you use it?"

Muni rider: "No."

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We finally found a passenger using Muni mobile -- an honest, law abiding tourist who had a one-day pass on his phone.

Melendez: "So, you paid using the mobile app?"

Muni rider: "Yes, right."

We also found that there are people who feel that because other passengers don't pay, "Why should I?"

"Absolutely, yeah, that's the reason," said that first couple who did not pay, Lorenzo and Misty Bartholomew.

That attitude shift is what in psychology is often referred to as "crowd behavior."

"We still try to pay for our fare as much as we can. It's just to a point to where, like, what's the point you know," Misty said.

Because Muni bus drivers have been assaulted in the past for trying to collect a fare, it's understandable that they don't engage with anyone who refuses to pay.

That's the responsibility of the fare inspectors who are supposed to ask passengers to show proof of payment.

"We have transit fare inspectors that are out there everyday collecting good data about who's paying and who's not paying," Tumlin said.

We asked Jennifer Horner, a regular Muni rider, when she last saw a fare inspector on Muni.

"I would say probably a year ago on a Muni train, not on a bus," Horner responded.

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According to new projections by the SFMTA, the San Francisco transit operator could be facing a budget deficit as high as $214 million by 2026.

Here's the problem with not paying.

Transit fares represent 18% of SFMTA's revenue, or about $219 million.

That's part of the reason why Muni had a $134 million deficit in 2022.

Too many numbers you say? Well, maybe you'll be interested in knowing how Muni is seriously thinking about how to address this shortfall. This will likely affect you: Extend the hours of parking meters on weekdays to include nights and on Sundays. That's 28,000 parking meters that could potentially be active on Sundays.

"So that would bring in an extra $18 million a year. It's enough to save three Muni lines," Tumlin said.

Other proposals include expanding neighborhood parking permits and taxes on off-street parking in downtown garages.

Another idea that circulated in the past was downtown congestion pricing - except that after the pandemic, downtown has been slow to recover.

We asked State Senator Scott Wiener, who is trying to secure funding in Sacramento for Muni and BART why not enforce fares instead of introducing so many proposals?

"We should enforce fares, but fare evasion is a small piece of the problem and even if we had 100% compliance, that would not solve the problem, so we need the state to help out," he said.

The federal stimulus monies that have kept Muni afloat are expected to run out. SFMTA is hoping the state will provide some short-term relief funds.

If not, the transit agency may have to scale back Muni to pandemic-levels of service, when only 40% of routes were up and running.

"So many people are riding on Muni and BART right now, and we can't have them fall apart," Wiener said.

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