Some state bailout funds that are flowing to the SFMTA came with the condition that the agency do more to crack down on fare evasion. So you will likely start seeing more scofflaws getting tickets for not having proof of payment.

When was the last time you saw an actual Muni fare inspector board a bus? Very likely it was many months if not years ago. And when was the last time you saw someone board a Muni bus without tagging their phone or Clipper card? Yeah. Probably yesterday or today.

It's a well known fact that a lot of people ride Muni buses for free. And some ride the trains for free too — though if you board at an actual station this would require hopping a fare gate, or (pssst!) using the extra wide gate by the station-agent booth that just automatically opens.

The SFMTA's official estimate these days is that 20.8% of riders are evading paying fares, though the actual number is likely higher. And the agency is in the awkward position now of trying to both downplay this issue and tackle it head-on in some fashion, because a big chunk of state funding depends on them making an effort.

Back in November, we learned that BART and Muni together were getting a $661 million subsidy from the state, representing the lion's share of a $776 million package flowing the Bay Area under Governor Newsom's latest budget. But as one of the conditions of getting this money, both agencies had to address the problem of rampant fare evasion.

BART is already doing that with the installation of new, taller, supposedly evasion-proof fare gates, which have now been installed at West Oakland and Civic Center, are coming to seven more stations in the near term. That project is costing the agency $90 million, it will be completed in 2025, and it reflects the fact BART gets a large portion of its operating budget through paid fares.

Muni fares, by contrast, only cover about 8% of the SFMTA's operating budget, but they are still on the hook to report back to the state showing improvement on the fare evasion front.

As you may remember, Muni stopped enforcing fare-paying during the start of the pandemic, and the SFMTA now blames this laxness for the rise in fare evasion — which they say has increased by nearly double since 2019, when they estimated, officially, that 12.8% of riders rode for free.

The agency still employs around 43 full-time fare inspectors — who, as we discussed two years ago, were getting paid their full salaries despite not having much to do for two pandemic years. Now, as the Chronicle reports, the SFMTA has budgeted for the hiring of 35 more, which they say will bring staffing in this area back to 2018 levels, when fare evasion was markedly lower.

This presumably will mean more visibility of the inspectors on trains and buses in the coming months.

"The most important thing that we see from the data is that there is a very direct correlation between the presence of fare inspectors and the rate of fare compliance," says SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin, speaking to the Chronicle. Tumlin adds that they are hoping to hire just the "right amount" of fare inspectors so that the cost of maintaining that staff level does not outweigh the cost of the fares being lost.

The agency also wants to make sure everyone knows that discount pass holders and MuniMobile app users have likely paid their fares despite not tagging anything at the bus door. But Bree Mawhorter, chief financial officer at the SFMTA, tells the Chronicle that seeing a flood of people board a bus without tagging cards or phones creates a "damaging" perception that fare-paying is optional.

Muni continues to operate in the red with enormous, nine-figure deficits being projected in upcoming years. And fare collection is way down, as the the Chronicle notes — with $108 million in paid fares projected for FY2025, down from $197 million in 2019. And that is after the agency has recovered over 70% of its pre-pandemic ridership.

Previously: BART and Muni Getting Huge State Bailout to the Tune of $661M, But It Comes With Conditions

Photo: SFMTA_Muni/Instagram