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Policy for Change: The City Repays Muni Riders' Loyalty with the Back of Its Hand. And That's Smart Politics 

Tuesday, Sep 9 2014
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"Brother Can You Spare a Dime," the runaway hit of 1932, summed up its era pretty succinctly. When ethnomusicologists of the future unearth a recording of "Happy" they won't glean nearly so much about our lives and times. But that song will be stuck in their heads for another century or so.

To put things in perspective, a dime in 1932 had the same buying power as $1.75 today. A poor ne'er-do-well pleading for a buck seventy-five now isn't going to enjoy a lot of success.

But a quarter? That's doable.

This may have been the logic when, starting last week, Muni's hundreds of thousands of daily riders were made to disgorge an extra quarter for every one-way fare as the price jumped from $2 to $2.25. Sure, that's a 12.5 percent spike. But, hey, it's a quarter.

The few news stories covering the hike quoted put-upon riders grumbling about the incursion into their wallets or, less sympathetically, using it to justify fare-evasion. Bus drivers tell your humble narrator that passengers fishing around for a quarter significantly slowed down service (and, keep in mind, Muni already offers, by far, the slowest service in North America).

As Muni rides grow interminable, however, at least passengers can take solace that they're getting more for their money.

For all the abuse San Franciscans heap upon Muni, it remains one of the nation's elite public transportation agencies (yes, really). We relish fulminating about the inconveniences suffered on a crosstown ride that, in other parts of the nation, would have been inconceivable to even undertake. Running the system takes money. And, again, it's a quarter.

What's harder to reconcile is the message here. On the very same day the mayoral rubber-stamp called the Municipal Transportation Agency Board approved the fare hike on Muni passengers, it also did away with Sunday meters for drivers.

In order to appease drivers incensed with the notion of paying to park one more day a week, Muni riders have been made to pay more every day.

Mayoral apparatchiks, obsessing over the looming November ballot fight for a $500 million Muni capital bond, had an explanation for this. Or at least part of this: Why dicker over the few million bucks Sunday meters would amass in the face of half a billion? Why cajole fussy drivers into voting down the big bond?

Of course, that rationale prompts the question of how it's justified to then turn around and punish people actually taking San Francisco's professed "Transit First" mantra to heart. This city is poised for a population boom; large numbers of drivers will have to be persuaded into walking, biking, or taking transit merely to keep congestion at its current (high) levels. Making parking free while dinging transit riders runs neatly counter to the city's stated goals.

Is this consistent? No. Is it wise policy? No. Is it politically expedient? Yes.

Perhaps it's Muni riders' lot in life to suffer. But they're not alone. Stiffing your loyal constituents (the Muni riders who depend on you the most) to court more tenuous allies (drivers disinclined to vote for a Muni bond) is so common in politics there's even a name for it: base abuse.

Jacking up Muni passengers' fares while cutting drivers a break, your humble narrator is told, is a purely political calculation. The math may not be agreeable, but it is rational.

Coldly rational, though. Drivers, the thinking goes, skew older and whiter. They're more likely than frequent transit riders to own their homes. In short, they're your swing voters in the coming election on the transit bond. Muni riders, however, are your base voters.

Muni riders, through convenience or necessity, are invested in the system. They also skew heavily toward renting rather than owning. So, a bond sold as helping the ailing system — and perceived by renters as being tacked on to other people's property taxes — isn't a controversial proposition.

They are the base. And, hence, get the abuse.

In recent years, crusading politicians have made Muni free or discounted its rates for specific groups of riders — while hiking up prices on the vast majority of passengers on an increasingly overtaxed system. It's great that seniors and disadvantaged youths won't be priced off the bus. It's less great that the average rider receives no such considerations. The groups that complain the loudest when fares are raised have been appeased by these discounted fares, leaving the vast bulk of the system's users to shoulder the burden.

Suffering is not only Muni riders' lot in life. It's what the city has figured out they're best for.

Because, if the city really desired to give riders a break and shower Muni with dollars, it could do so. With the stroke of a pen.

As your humble narrator and others have written so many times, voters in 2007 approved Proposition A, which aimed to funnel $32 million a year to Muni. Instead, however, various city departments that had been helping themselves to that money began charging Muni for tasks they had previously undertaken gratis. This continues: Scores of millions of dollars of Muni money is still appropriated by other city departments. Several city departments' budgets are balanced by siphoning funds out of Muni.

This money-grab has been institutionalized; it is now baked into the city's culture. But if it were curtailed, enough cash would be freed up that hapless Muni riders wouldn't be made to fish for quarters. Or, quite likely, need to vote on whether to go into bonded debt to finance the system.

But that's not happening. It's far simpler, politically and practically, to dilute the pain and shunt it onto the system's core ridership. Because you can. And because, if they vote to spite you, they only spite themselves.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

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