CultureBus II? Market Street Railway Says No to MUNI’s $5 F-Line Fare Proposal

Market Street Railway President President Rick Laubscher has some thoughts this morning about MUNI‘s proposal to raise the cash fare for the F-Market historic streetcar line.

Will the F-Line turn into another fiasco like we just had with the $7 CultureBus 74X? And how will MUNI leader Nat Ford manage to get by making an annual salary that’s merely $308,000 more per year than our Governor’s?

We should get some answers today at City Hall. Stay tuned. 

Here are Rick’s Eight Points:

1. The F-line is a core Muni service and should be treated as such.
2. Muni should collect the fares it’s already charging.
3. The F-line is cost-effective at its current fares.
4. Staff’s revenue assumptions from the fare increase are dubious
5. Different fares at the same Muni stops will slow down operations.
6. “Let ‘em buy a Fast Pass” is not an acceptable response.
7. Exceptionally high fares on the F-line hurt the city’s economic vitality.
8. Muni wants to penalize a line that “people want.”
 
And here’s Rick missive to MUNI riders:

$5 for an F-line Ride? An Open Letter to Nat Ford January 19, 2010 by Rick Laubscher, Market Street Railway
 
On behalf of Market Street Railway, I have sent the email excerpted below to SFMTA Executive Director/CEO Nathaniel P. Ford, Sr.  All are welcome to borrow and elaborate on any of these arguments in your own communications with decision-makers on this matter.

Remember, the SFMTA Board gives initial considerations to its staff’s 2010 budget recommendations, including the proposal to raise F-line fares from $2 to $5, Tuesday, January 19 at 2 p.m., Room 400, City Hall. 

You can reach Mr. Ford at 415-701-4720 or by email here. You can register your opinion with the SFMTA Board members by emailing this address. You can also reach Mayor Newsom at 415-554-6141 or by email here. Your opinion counts.

Read the whole thing, after the jump. 

To: Nat Ford, SFMTA
From: Rick Laubscher, Market Street Railway

There are many constituencies in San Francisco for the F-line, of which Market Street Railway is hardly the most important. But in a constructive spirit, we want to clearly convey the reasons we respectfully but firmly oppose this proposal. 

The F-line is a core Muni service and should be treated as such.

Your staff’s presentation recommends raising the F-line cash fare two-and-a-half times to $5, “similar to the cable cars.” The clear implication of this is that your staff considers the F-line a tourist attraction more than a transit line. 

Yet your staff included the F-line in the Transit Effectiveness Program’s “Rapid Network,” described as “Popular lines [that]…make up the backbone of the system.” And your staff’s assumption that only 20% of fares paid on F-line streetcars are cash fares further reinforces the case that this is a line primarily ridden by residents.

The F-line is not a new line. It is the merging of two other Muni lines that go back more than 70 years each: the 8-Market and the 32-Embarcadero. As a prime advocate of that switch from two bus lines to one streetcar line, I know the goal of Muni staff at the time was to create a more attractive service than the buses provided, without driving up per-passenger costs. The F-line is far more popular with riders than those two bus lines were, and has clearly contributed to the economic vitality of Upper Market and the renaissance of The Embarcadero. Is this popularity a reason to multiply the fare 2.5 times?

The F-line is now the only Muni line now serving riders along most of the northern Embarcadero, home to thousands of San Franciscans. It is the neighborhood line of the Upper Market and mid-Market neighborhoods, providing accessible stops every block, which is important to both disabled and ambulatory residents along the route. Are wheelchair users and seniors who cannot afford the rapidly increasing prices of their Fast Passes now expected to pay $5 for each F-line ride, when, along much of the route, there is no alternative Muni service?

Would you currently be advocating raising the fares on the 8-Market and 32-Embarcadero buses if this more attractive service hadn’t replaced those lines? If not, what is the rationale for raising the F-line fare?

Collect the fares you’re already charging.

Because of current Muni practices, the F-line does not come close to collecting all the fares it currently should. The cars are so crowded that operators routinely tell people to board by the back door, forfeiting the fares from those who were prepared to pay cash. At other times, particularly weekends, fareboxes on some F-line streetcars simply get full and cannot accept more fares. Rather than take the streetcar off the street and leave a gap in service, passengers are simply allowed to ride free. 

Many Muni operators (on all lines, not just the F) effectively give riders a free return trip by tearing transfers to allow several additional hours of riding time. These are all revenue-reducing situations that we have pointed out to your staff more than once over the years. We believe that if these situations were remedied, it would significantly increase F-line (and, if more broadly applied, Muni) revenues.

The F-line is cost-effective at its current fares.

SFMTA’s own data on per-passenger costs of each Muni line do not suggest that the F-line operates at a higher subsidy than many Muni lines. The F-line’s operating and maintenance costs are in line with other Muni modes, and certainly in line with the vehicles used on other Rapid Network lines. 

If the proposal for higher F-line cash fares is based on relative subsidy costs, why are no other lines, including those with far higher subsidies, being considered for such differentiation?

Staff’s revenue assumptions from the fare increase are dubious.

Your staff report assumes that everyone currently paying the $2 cash fare on the F-line would also be willing to pay the $5 cash fare. This is palpably untrue.

Many residents in Upper Market dislike the Metro because of its unreliability and crowding and currently take the F-line instead. But to assume that all of them will accept a 2.5x fare increase on the F-line rather than gritting their teeth and walking down into the Metro is wrong.

Similarly, visitors will find other options. The F-line clearly gained riders when cable car cash fares went to $5 per person, with no discounts for kids. For a family of four, that means a cable car ride between downtown and the Wharf costs $20, while an F-line ride currently costs $5.50. But if you put the F-line up to cable car prices, many families will say no to Muni altogether and take cabs instead. Or simply not go. 

Demand elasticity has always been a major consideration in considering transit fare increases all over the world. Especially given Muni’s own very recent experience with the utter failure of the premium fare 74X “Culture Bus,” it is mind-boggling to me that your staff could assume no demand elasticity at all here, at least as far as the public presentation shows.

Different fares at the same Muni stops will slow down operations.

The cable cars do not share stops with other Muni lines. The F-line does, along much of Market Street. Numerous bus lines, whose fares are not being proposed for increases, share the same boarding islands. No matter how well you try to inform riders through signage, there will be significant confusion among both residents and visitors concerning two different fare structures at the same stop. This cannot help but delay service as riders get on, then off F-line streetcars once they learn of the fare differential, causing the streetcar (and buses behind it) to miss traffic signal cycles. We are just a few months into a major experiment to speedMuni service along Market Street by restricting automobile traffic that holds up buses and streetcars.  This change would undo the gains we’ve already made, and perhaps make Market Street surface transit service even slower. 

This is not a theory. The reports we get back from our many members who regularly ride the F are quite clear about how easy it is to delay a bus or streetcar through confusion over fares.

“Let ‘em buy a Fast Pass” is not an acceptable response.

The Muni staff response to the cable car fare increase several years ago was, “residents can keep their cable car fare where it was by buying a Fast Pass.” Unless you are a regular commuter, the Fast Pass does not pencil out.Many San Franciscans need transit mobility on a less regular basis. Many others might ride Muni regularly, but not enjoy the cash flow to make an upfront payment of the size of a Fast Pass on the first of every month. The F-line fare increase is especially discriminatory towards them.

Exceptionally high fares on the F-line hurt the city’s economic vitality.

The F-line carries perhaps the most diverse mix of passengers of any Muni line. The line is busy day and night, weekends as well as weekdays. There are few Muni lines carrying as many passengers after 8 pm as the F-line, or at Sunday noon. Many of these folks are on shopping, dining, and entertainment trips, residents and visitors alike. A five dollar cash fare discourages these trips, and is likely to cause many people to make different plans. This cannot help but impact sales tax revenues, from purchases of meals, products, and entertainment that no longer occur because of the cost of the ride.

Years ago, Muni ran what were called “Shopper’s Shuttles” on Market and Mission Streets to help stimulate local business. The fare was a nickel, back when the regular Muni fare was 15 cents. While such a discount to the regular fare may not be affordable today, how can there be any doubt that an F-line fare 2.5 times higher than any other bus or streetcar line will have the opposite effect — discouraging people from using the F-line and diminishing economic activity along the route. This isn’t just about tourist destinations or retail malls. Many small businesses on Upper Market benefit from F-line riders rolling past their doors instead of passing beneath on Muni Metro. A five dollar cash fare will drive many of those neighborhood riders into the subway, putting many neighborhood businesses out of sight and out of mind to them.

Penalizing a line that “people want.”

Since the proposal came out on Friday, I have received numerous emails from our members and friends who cannot comprehend the logic behind your staff’s proposal. Some believe your staff is just so jealous of the F-line’s success that they’re trying to kill it with ridiculously high fares. I do not share that view, given the prominence that SFMTA has given the F-line since its inception, featuring the streetcars in advertising, presentations, and other public outreach well above what their percentage of overall operation would suggest. Your staff clearly knows the F-line is Muni’s most positive “face” to its public. Yet, I understand the suspicions, because it is hard to find a more rational explanation for the staff proposal. 

It is ironic that exactly at the time the Obama Administration reversed the Bush policy of discriminating against neighborhood-scale streetcar projects, this prohibitive fare increase should be proposed for the most popular existing community streetcar line in the nation. In fact, the New York Times chose to illustrate its story on this announcement with a photo of an F-line car at Market and Church. That story also gave prominent placement to a quote by Transportation Secretary Ray La Hood: “We’ll finally be able to make the case for investing in popular streetcar projects and other transit systems that people want” (emphasis added).

There’s no question, based on the fact that it has increased the ridership of its predecessor bus lines 2.5 times, that the F-line is a popular service that people want. The question I have is this: should the riders who made it 2.5 more popular than the buses it replaced be punished with a 2.5x fare increase?

In short, why is your staff proposing to punish success?

We certainly understand the current budget pressures on SFMTA. We do not expect, nor have we ever asked for, special treatment for the F-line. We only expected — and still expect –  that it be treated the same as the other Muni lines that SFTMA itself has defined as core to its operation. That starts with retaining the same fare structure as those other lines.

After reviewing this information, Nat, I hope you will consider removing this recommendation in favor of trying to increase F-line revenue through more effective enforcement of the current fare. As we have done for many years, Market Street Railway also stands ready to work with you and your staff to help increase operating efficiencies on the F-line and identifying other ways to help Muni and the City and County of San Francisco reap even more value from what is, as you know, the most popular transit line of its kind in North America.

Thanks in advance for your consideration.

Regards,

Rick Laubscher
Board Chair and President
Market Street Railway

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