As the Supervisors vote on the Muni Budget for fiscal years 2008-09 and 2009-10 (which would raise fares during the second year), the MTA’s Governance Committee has instructed staff to develop a proposal improving the Lifeline Pass
. Created in 2005 to help low-income, transit-dependent riders, the $35-a-month pass has proven inadequate because (a) the discount is minimal, (b) the pass does not work on BART, (c) the income cut-offs leave many working people behind and (d) even buying the pass can be a challenge. Ensuring that low-income people can access transit must be a priority – and the economic slump coupled with higher rents
makes it even more urgent. As the MTA plans to use Prop A funds to hire more staff and make more efficient routes, those who depend on Muni cannot be left behind.
At today’s MTA Board meeting, Vice Chair Tom Nolan will announce that the staff will soon propose changes to the Lifeline Pass. It’s a long overdue effort to make Muni accessible for transit-dependent riders – while the transit agency also proposes changes that will help riders who have other options get to work. The Lifeline Pass is currently set at $35-a-month (as opposed to the regular pass at $45), and approximately 60,000 San Franciscans who make less than 200% of the poverty line are eligible. However, less than 3,000 riders actually buy the Lifeline Pass on a monthly basis.
When you read the details, it’s easy to see why so many haven’t bought the Lifeline Pass. Ten dollars isn’t much of a discount – especially when you can only get it at three locations in the City, it’s only sold four days a month, and to qualify you must show proof of eligibility with another government discount. Mission District riders find the pass even less appealing because it does not work on BART. While seniors, youth and the disabled have complained for decades that their Muni Pass also does not work on BART, they only have to pay $10 – which makes it worthwhile.
Improvement are still in the works, but staff has indicated a $15 Lifeline Pass would be proposed – while the MTA Budget would increase the Senior, Youth and Disabled pass to $15 in 2009 (and increase the Adult Fast Pass to $55.) This would enormously help the working poor who use Muni to get to their jobs, the hospital and grocery stores. While members of the Transit Not Traffic
coalition – a group that came together after Prop A’s passage
– have serious issues with raising fares next year, most support (and have lobbied for) the MTA Budget if we improve the Lifeline Pass.
But lowering the cost of the Lifeline Pass is only a starting point. If Muni wants to raise the Fast Pass for everyone else, the Lifeline Pass must be modified so that more people would qualify – ensuring that those who “can afford to pay more” really can. Right now, it’s only available for households that make less than 200% of the federal poverty line – so a single person making $10.50/hour is not eligible. Muni should expand eligibility to households making 300% of the federal poverty line, or $42,000/year for a family of two.
The application process for the Lifeline Pass needs to be streamlined. Currently, eligible riders must prove that they already qualify under another means-tested program (such as the CARE program or Universal Lifeline Telephone) – forcing applicants to jump several hoops to get a bus discount. If other programs simply require you to state your income under penalty of perjury, what’s wrong with doing the same for the Muni Lifeline Pass?
To qualify for the Lifeline Pass, you must go to one of two locations (170 Otis Street or the Career Link Center @ Mission and Cesar Chavez) during regular working hours and only during four days a month. Only after you’ve been deemed eligible can you buy it the following month at a third location – 11 South Van Ness. Other bus passes can be purchased online, and are available at locations throughout the City. How many working people can take time off their jobs to travel to these locations to purchase the pass?
Finally, the Lifeline Pass can only be purchased with cash. Part of this is due to concern that credit cards charge exorbitant interest rates for poor people, but there are other means of payment to make it “user friendly.” Accepting payments by money order, bank check cards and personal checks could go a long way to improving the Lifeline Pass.
San Francisco voters passed Prop A last November. The expectation was that if we give Muni an extra $26 million a year in parking revenue, we will get the first-class system that a “transit-first” City deserves. Transit-dependent populations in Chinatown and the Tenderloin worked hard to pass Prop A, along with advocates in the Mission, ACORN, SEIU and others. Muni has plans to use this money to change the bus routes so that they are more efficient – which can help everybody.
But unless we improve the Lifeline Pass, many San Franciscans won’t benefit from these changes. It's now up to the MTA Board to craft a good proposal.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Paul Hogarth is the Program Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic’s Transit Justice Project, and a member of the Transit Not Traffic Coalition.