The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to advance a plan to make Muni free this summer, despite concerns by some City officials that the pilot could complicate the full restoration of service after the pandemic. But the proposal appears dead on arrival, with Mayor London Breed saying that she plans to veto it.
The free Muni proposal seeks to allocate $12.5 million from San Francisco’s general fund to pay for the pilot, which would begin July 1 and run through the end of September. With ridership hovering at about 30% of pre-pandemic levels, the $12.5 million equates to the estimated fare recovery during that time.
In a 7-4 vote on Tuesday, Supervisors opted to move the plan forward but voiced mixed sentiments on the wisdom of free fares during a tenuous time for SFMTA.
Proponents of the measure argued that free fares would attract riders back to the system and put money in people’s pockets, while critics contended that SFMTA must prioritize restoring full service over making fares free.
“I cannot in good faith [support this proposal] while my constituents are in a transit desert,” said Supervisor Myrna Melgar, who voted no. “I stand firm in my commitment to get my constituents reliable and accessible transit first and foremost. Once that happens, I am more than happy to engage further in the free Muni conversation.”
Supervisor Dean Preston, a lead advocate of the free Muni plan, said that California’s planned full reopening on June 15 renders concerns about overcrowding “moot” because SFMTA will no longer need to follow such stringent safety protocols.
Speaking at a budget meeting earlier this month, SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin cautioned that the agency is facing a driver shortage and may not be able to easily accommodate a glut of free riders over the summer. Recruiting and training a sufficient number of drivers is a long process and cannot happen on a compacted time frame, he said.
"We want to make sure the service is there, and people can access that service, before we start taking on programs like making the service free," said Tumlin. "That data is abundantly clear in that what really drives ridership is quality of service, across all incomes."
In a 2018 survey, San Franciscans were asked for their top reasons for not taking Muni. Trips taking too long, or being too complicated, was the top-cited reason; the cost of fares did not make the list.
After drastically cutting service during the COVID-19 pandemic, SFMTA has begun gradually reintroducing more routes this year. The agency hopes to restore outlying 85% of pre-pandemic service by January 2022, but 57 of 96 total Muni routes remain suspended or shortened for now.
SFMTA is set to receive hundreds of millions in federal relief to compensate for a drastic drop in revenue during the pandemic. Those federal funds are expected to close the agency’s 2-year budget deficit, though the agency still faces a longer-term “structural deficit” that forecasts expenditures outpacing revenue over time.
"The Mayor sent a letter to [Board President Shamann Walton and Supervisor Matt Haney] in April saying she would not support any more budget supplementals because she is introducing a balanced budget on June 1," said Andy Lynch, a spokesperson for the Mayor's office. "The Mayor believes we need to return Muni to full service in support of our economic recovery, especially for our lower income communities, before we use precious general fund dollars to provide free rides for those who don't need it."
Had the Mayor approved the free Muni pilot, it would have had to pass muster at the SFMTA Board of Directors, which is charged with approving budget supplementals.
Preston hit back in a tweet on Tuesday night, writing: "The mayor believes her priorities matter more than the people’s."
In June, the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors will begin the process of reviewing and finalizing the full budget for the upcoming two-year cycle. The Board of Supervisors must vote on and approve the budget by August 1.
Annie Gaus can be reached at email@example.com