Muni ridership is down more than 60 percent due to the pandemic, but limited service has been maintained to serve essential workers and those who cannot work from home. <ins>(Samantha Laurey/ Special to S.F. Examiner)</ins>

Muni ridership is down more than 60 percent due to the pandemic, but limited service has been maintained to serve essential workers and those who cannot work from home. (Samantha Laurey/ Special to S.F. Examiner)

Supervisor Preston wants free Muni for duration of pandemic

Advocates say SFMTA should use federal relief funds to cover lost farebox revenue

Supervisor Dean Preston wants all Muni riders to travel for free for the duration of the ongoing public health crisis, and he’s calling on the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to make it happen.

“Free Muni during the pandemic is a crucial step to restore ridership and put money in struggling San Franciscan’s pockets when they need it most,” Preston said in a statement.

The SFMTA announced last week it would provide free round-trip travel for anyone going to get their COVID-19 vaccination, a step the supervisor says he welcomed for its role in reducing barriers, promoting use of public transit and saving riders valuable dollars.

But he says limiting fee-free ridership to vaccination appointments doesn’t go nearly far enough. It still leaves healthcare workers and patients traveling to medical facilities, individuals going to coronavirus test sites and families headed to essential destinations such as the grocery store or pharmacy to pay during a persistent economic crisis.

Providing free service would alleviate a financial burden for many and encourage riders to take Muni in a time where ridership remains more than 60 percent below ordinary levels.

Many transit advocates, some of whom have argued for free Muni for years, seem to agree.

“Free Muni will help get our economy back on track, rebuild ridership and prevent climate change,” PJ Eugenio of South of Market Community Action Network said in a statement. “As a matter of fairness and equity, we urge MTA to eliminate fares immediately for the duration of the pandemic.”

A similar proposal was approved by Fresno City Council earlier this month. It does away with fares, and plans to use COVID-19 federal relief funds to cover the lost costs in the short term before returning later this year to determine a longer term financing plan.

There is a significant obstacle to the proposal, however. SFMTA just barely balanced its $1.3 billion budget this fiscal year with significant help from federal funding, and it faces a $134 million deficit in the upcoming annual budget that begins in July.

Additional incoming federal aid under the new presidential administration will give the agency temporary relief, allowing it to avoid layoffs and stabilize current service at about 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

However, officials caution the public that the agency’s revenues simply don’t keep pace with its expenses, pointing to a ballooning structural deficit that existed even before the pandemic.

At a budget workshop earlier this month, staff estimated the gap could reach $36 billion over the next 30 years, and said it would be imperative to identify long-term funding sources rather than one-time infusions like federal stimulus dollars to support the agency’s operations.

“Eliminating fares would require that we further cut service and leave more essential workers behind at the curb,” SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato said.

Advocates for free Muni counter that the choice isn’t so simple.

Language in both relief packages specifically stipulates that transit funding can be used to reimburse the operating costs associated with providing service for free, and they argue that with farebox revenue already down by roughly 90 percent, it’s not the current driving revenue source for SFMTA operations.

“I do not believe we have to choose between temporary fare relief and quality of service,” said Chris Arvin, a transit advocate and member of the SFMTA Citizens Advisory Council.

Plus, they say, it’s the right thing to do during this time of grave economic hardship, pointing to other entities such as the San Francisco International Airport and the Port of San Francisco, which are providing some financial support to commercial tenants at a cost to their own bottom line.

“A progressive city like San Francisco should be responding to conditions like a huge increase in Bay Area unemployment with relief from those fares, not $125 fines for those who can’t pay them,” Arvin said.

For San Franciscans most in need, though, Muni does already offer steeply discounted and free fare alternatives. Seniors, individuals with disabilities, many youth and those facing financial difficulties can ride Muni at a very low cost.

“Muni is doing our part by offering free rides to and from COVID-19 vaccine sites to support our city’s highest priority — stopping the spread and beating COVID-19,” Kato said. “Having reliable service available for essential workers and those who are completely transit dependent is the most equitable way to serve the community.”

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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