Bay Area Considers Basing Transit Fares on Need

Transportation officials in the greater San Francisco area have been debating a proposal to provide free public transit for low-income youth. They are now considering the possibility of basing fares on income, rather than age or disability.

December 4, 2012, 8:00 AM PST

By Jessica Hsu

"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 (SFMTA), 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." It does seem unfair that a wealthy senior can purchase a monthly pass for $22, when a young worker making minimum wage pays $64. The SFMTA is preparing a report on potential new fares for the 2013 budget season, and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is conducting a $1 million study of the issue. "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?" said Randy Rentschler, spokesman for the MTC.

The SFMTA currently provides a 50 percent discount on monthly fare for "residents whose income equals or falls below 200 percent of federal poverty lines," but "only 19,535 passengers use that system, which is burdensome and requires a lot of paperwork for the agency and its customers." The proposed income-based system would ideally cut down on the red tape and provide discounts for those most in need, said Reiskin, while also making the system more fair, efficient and cost-effective. Wealthier older riders would pay higher fares than lower-income young adults, and the reform could increase the accessibility of public transportation. Will Reisman adds, "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."

Transit agencies in San Francisco have the infrastructure to move forward with the proposal, but Tom Radulovich, a board member of the Bay Area Rapid Transit, warns that "any such plan would face plenty of challenges." The agencies would need to agree on a cohesive discount fare policy amid their competing policies, and the policy changes could take years to be implemented. There are other issues including "stigma attached to riders who hold reduced-fare passes" and "the considerable doubts of senior transit passengers, who could revolt against any proposal that reduces their discount."

However, "[i]f 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," said Cheryl Brinkman, a member of the SFMTA board of directors. "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."

Friday, November 30, 2012 in San Francisco Examiner

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