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Muni reduced enforcement of fare payments during the pandemic. Here’s how much it cost the agency

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency fare inspectors were once the bane of passengers seeking to take a free bus or train ride.

Before the pandemic, it was common to see inspectors dressed in black escorting a sheepish commuter off a train and writing out fare evasion citations for $100 or more. But those enforcement actions are apparently rarer these days, and inspectors are issuing far fewer citations than before the coronavirus.

By way of comparison, in July 2019, inspectors issued 4,610 tariff evasion reports. This number fell to zero in April 2020 and rebounded to 681 last May, the most recent month with data available. For 11 of the 35 months of data provided, no citations were issued. This sharp decline also resulted in thousands of dollars in lost revenue for Muni per month.

The decline in tickets issued is due, in part, to Muni moving away from issuing fines only in 2020, as part of the citywide pandemic measures.

But the drop in ticketing also comes despite the fact that the workforce of transit inspectors has remained about the same during the pandemic, compared to two years ago.

The app’s softer approach has resulted in lower revenue for a cash-strapped agency that had to cut services during the pandemic and recently lost a $400 million bond to make a series of improvements . This month, Muni restored service on some lines that had been interrupted during the pandemic. The agency also received $116 million in state grants in July to upgrade its aging infrastructure.

Data provided by Muni shows that even though up to half of the quotes he issued went unpaid in the months leading up to the start of the pandemic, they were still around $200,000-300,000 a year. months before the initial COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020.

That’s a small fraction of the agency’s overall budget, but a potential source of millions of dollars a year as the agency attempts to restore service and when ridership is still below pre-pandemic levels. This is in addition to the fact that the fares paid were also about a fifth of the agency’s operating budget, before the pandemic.

SFMTA spokeswoman Erica Kato said in an email to The Chronicle that fare inspectors were focusing more on telling people about reduced fares and activities such as handing out masks at the start of the season. pandemic.

“Now that we are in a new phase of the pandemic, we will intensify our efforts to ensure that passengers pay their fares,” she said. What this means is not entirely clear, although the most recent data showing that inspectors issued 681 citations in May, the most since the 2,526 handed out in March 2020, could signal a return to more enforcement. strict.

Kato said, “Enforcement is still part of our compliance model. We are currently analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the compliance model and will improve it in the coming months” with a focus on service quality and creating a safe and welcoming transportation environment.

SFMTA Chief Spokesperson Erica Kato (l tor) and SFMTA Transit Planner Matthew Lee prepare to board a test bus along the new Bus Route Rapid Transit on Tuesday, March 22, 2022 in San Francisco, Calif.

Léa Suzuki / The Chronicle

What that means today was hard to say. On several Muni train and bus journeys over the past month, no fare inspectors have been seen, including at the city center exit turnstiles where they used to perch to catch fraudsters reckless in the morning.

Kato ignored several requests from The Chronicle to phantom fare inspectors doing the rounds during peak hours.

Yet the growing number of fines indicates a renewed interest in citations. Although less than half of those issued in May, just 227, were actually paid, Muni grossed nearly $30,000 that month, the biggest citation gain since May 2021, when the agency collected more of $41,000 on them.

Asked why so many quotes go unpaid, Kato said it’s been a “long-standing issue, and we’re now working to better understand how we can ensure that the quotes we issue are actually paid”. She did not provide any details as to why or what the agency was doing to make this happen.

The citations are civil penalties, although transit officers have been known to threaten to call the police and make it a criminal case if someone refuses to hand over their ID or does not cooperate.

Another anomaly in the data is that of the 35 months from July 2019 to May this year, 11 of them saw no quotes issued, although some quotes were paid in those months.

Kato said that’s because people have 40 days to pay for quotes and the process often takes longer. Late fees were suspended during the pandemic and resumed late last year, she said, adding that the data shows when a quote was paid rather than when it was issued.

Passing a fine to people reminding them to pay and seemingly backtracking raises the question of whether having dozens of full-time fare inspectors – 43 as of June 2022 – is the best use of limited agency funds.

Muni operators were once the first line of defense in making sure people paid. But implementing all-door boarding years ago and encouraging passengers to only use backdoors away from drivers due to social distancing during the pandemic has made this strategy a thing of the past. past.

Other tariff models were also discussed, but never implemented, which would render tariff inspectors obsolete. Chief among them was a push for a temporary free-for-all Muni pilot scheme that was shot last year by the mayor of London Breed.

Muni free for young people 18 and under, as well as some older people and people with disabilities, has been more successful, leaving fare inspectors to police a dwindling paying population and a lower overall traffic.

“We will regularly analyze our fare inspection program and work to make it more effective,” Kato said, adding that reminding people to pay instead of fining them during the early parts of the pandemic was “the most makes sense both in terms of the impacts of the pandemic and the improvements we wanted to make to the customer experience.

“In 2022, we are looking at these issues as well as fairness and equity issues for our riders, our overall staff shortage, the importance of transit fares as a source of revenue for our agency and what we can learn from our most recent shift in approach,” Kato said.

Chase DiFeliciantonio is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @ChaseDiFelice