Fare or foul?
Activists call for Muni fare strike, but even the most vocal opponents of the rate hike are reluctant to join the chorus

By Matthew Hirsch

Social change doesn't just happen of its own accord. It happens because of people like Jose Alfaro.

A lifelong San Franciscan who retired in 2000 from his job as a professional cook, Alfaro dedicates himself to making life easier for new immigrants to this city. He's a smooth, natural-born organizer, an affable man who can engage in two conversations at once while handing out flyers to the crowds passing by.

These days Alfaro is helping organize a fare strike to protest the increased cost of a Muni ride from $1.25 to $1.50, which will hurt low-wage workers and the elderly most, he says. (The senior fare increases only to 50, but Alfaro fears many still wind up paying more than they should.) He's part of a small, loose-knit group that's calling the strike, but without active support from labor and community organizations that previously opposed the Muni fare increase.

The tension surrounding the proposed fare strike – which kicks off Sept. 1, when the fare increase takes effect – illustrates a divide between pragmatists and idealists. They differ on the point at which high fares will discourage use of public transportation.

"I remember when bus fare cost 15 cents," Alfaro told me as we shivered outside the Balboa Park BART station.

"Instead of raising the fares, they should be fixing the buses and getting their system in order. But I'm just an old man, maybe a foolish old man," he said.

Some are certainly questioning the tactic of a fare strike. "The problem that Muni is facing is one of funding, so it doesn't really make sense to deprive Muni of revenue while promoting additional revenue for Muni," said Andrew Sullivan of Rescue Muni.

Muni spokesperson Maggie Lynch told the Bay Guardian there was no way to close a projected $57 million budget deficit without the fare increase. The Muni system is so strapped, she said, that it doesn't even have money to hire additional fare inspectors to deal with a potential fare strike.

"This is about keeping the service going, and people who don't pay are cheating the system. They might veil their theft as a transit strike, but it's stealing," Lynch said.

What's missing here is a long-term strategy that includes a definition of affordable passenger fares. Muni officials have a long-term vision of what its transportation system should look like, but it depends on revenue streams that fluctuate year by year.

So when Muni projects a deficit, the Municipal Transportation Agency generally has to cut service or raise fares to balance the budget. This marks the third consecutive year that MTA has done one or the other. In fact, it is cutting service, raising fares, and laying off drivers.

Alfaro says it's time to put a stop to business as usual. "If we don't resist, they're going to keep [raising the fare]," he said.

Casey Mills of the Coalition for Transit Justice, a group that vehemently opposed the fare increase but has not signed on to the fare strike, agrees. The financial problems at Muni are structural, he says, noting that nobody expects a windfall of new revenue next year or anytime soon.

"So if you look at it from that perspective, there's no alternative to raising fares year after year, budgeting on the backs of transit riders," Mills told me.

The situation is made worse by political decisions that make it more costly to operate Muni while depriving the system of revenue, says Tom Radulovich, executive director of Transportation for a Livable City. He calls this the "death spiral for Muni."

So where does it all end? Mills said he's heard rumors that in a few years, fares could wind up at $2 or more.

That thought has left transit activists in an uneasy position. Though they're not fully supporting the fare strike, some are at least helping get the word out. (Visit www.transitjustice.org and click on the link "Events." For more information about the Muni strike, see www.socialstrike.net.)

"While we're not going to do it, I fully understand the frustration," Radulovich told us. "And if it gets the attention of the powers that be, more power to them."

E-mail Matthew Hirsch at matthew@sfbg.com.