- Four of the San Francisco Bay Area’s largest transit agencies — San Francisco Municipal Railway, BART, Golden Gate Transit and Caltrain — are considering a proposal to offer a 20% discount to low-income riders.
- SF Gate reports the agencies would offer the discount to anyone with an annual income of less than 200% of the federal poverty level: $24,280 for a single person, $32,920 for a couple or $50,200 for a family of four.
- The plan has already received some pushback from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the Bay Area’s transportation planning agency. At a meeting last week, commissioners reportedly said it does not go far enough or provide enough of a discount to low-income riders.
In a memo, MTC executive director Steve Heminger said the affordability of public transportation has become an issue recently, and Bay Area leaders have wrestled with it on several occasions. Previous proposals have included free rides for low-income youth in San Francisco and subsidizing transit to schools in Oakland, CA. And a 2011 study by The Minerta Transportation Institute showed most low-income households are concerned about transportation costs, even if they don’t own cars.
This plan has already been scaled back, having initially been intended to reduce fares by 50% at the six largest transit agencies in the country. But many expressed concerns at losing too much money, and AC Transit and SamTrans dropped out of the program altogether. MTC would reimburse transit agencies out of a budget of around $11 million, partly through a 12-cent gas tax hike that is the subject of a repeal effort.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, commissioners raised concerns about the lack of funds, meaning the program cannot bring more meaningful subsidies for low-income riders. And with the discount resulting in a BART ride from Oakland to San Francisco — reduced from $3.50 to $2.80 and the cost of a Muni ride reduced from $2.50 to $2 — there are questions about how much difference a relatively minor cut will make for those on low incomes. "It’s just not enough," commissioner Scott Haggerty said, according to the Marin Independent Journal.
New York City discussed a similar scheme in mid-2017 for low-income riders, with $50 million available to provide subsidies, but ended up leaving it out of its final budget. But such schemes appear possible, even in large cities. Seattle began a program in 2015 called ORCA LIFT to subsidize public transportation based on riders’ income, while similar programs have been piloted for those living in affordable housing units in that city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Seattle’s ORCA LIFT is paid for by raising fares on some other riders, including those who use paratransit. Transportation agencies must balance the need to accommodate more low-income riders, although options are thin on the ground to raise extra money to pay for the subsidies beyond fare hikes and tax increases.