Chalk it up, in part, to the ongoing financial devastation felt by public transportation bodies around the world as ridership plummeted over the course of the crisis. At a meeting of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which administers the San Francisco Municipal Railway (SFMUNI), last week, the agency laid out some dour figures. Fare collection on MUNI, which covers busses and the city’s light rail lines, was still down 90 percent and the organization is anticipating a $568 million operating shortfall over the next four years.
In February of this year, before most of the country had shut down to head off the virus’s spread, 68 bus lines were wending their way across San Francisco, ferrying an average of 700,000 daily passengers. That number fell to only 17 operating lines at the height of the pandemic (including shuttle lines to replace light rail service) and has eked back up to 23 lines at the time of writing. But unfortunately, this might be the new normal.
Even with the city’s famously narrow streets already beginning to experience gridlock, riders may permanently transition to commuting by car thanks to the health stigma now associated with cramming into close quarters on public transportation. During the June 30th SFMTA meeting, Jonathan Rewers, senior manager of budget, financial planning and analysis at SFMUNI, stated that service cuts seemed to be the only way to keep the struggling organization above water by 2023. Additionally, he estimated that in a worst-case scenario, only about 150,000 daily riders could come back to the system even after a recovery, about one-fifth of pre-COVID levels.
A planned fare hike, which would have put another $20 million into SFMUNI’s coffers, was recently canceled as well. Ensuring buses are empty enough to put six feet of distance between riders and the extra costs associated with disinfecting the fleet will also eat into the organization’s bottom line. Even if the 40 lines on the city’s chopping block ultimately aren’t axed for good, they’ll still be put on hiatus for the next two years as SFMUNI attempts to get through the crisis while encouraging riders to return.
Transportation planners are currently determining which lines will be reactivated for the near-term future, bringing the number of bus routes up from 23 to 28.