Transit officials fear Free Muni pilot could hurt already-strained service levels

Supporters say fare cuts could increase ridership, help low-income residents

San Francisco supervisors could be poised to approve legislation that would allocate $12.7 million to fund a three-month Free Muni pilot starting July 1, but that doesn’t mean passengers will ride for free this summer.

Even if funding is approved, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors must vote to amend its budget to accommodate the program and enact legislation to create the temporary pilot, an outcome that is far from certain.

“If they don’t feel like this meets and fits in with their goals and objectives, they could choose not to approve this,” Supervisor Ahsha Safai said at Wednesday’s Budget and Appropriations Committee meeting. “I would bet, having talked to a few of them, that they’re not interested in accepting this money and operating this program.”

Of the five supervisors on the committee, Safai was the only that did not offer full-throated support for the pilot program introduced in April by Supervisor Dean Preston. A vote on the item will be taken next week.

Under the legislation, the Board of Supervisors would direct $12.7 million from one of its reserve funds designated for COVID-19 recovery to the SFMTA for the explicit purpose of implementing a Free Muni pilot from July to September 2021.

According to the Budget and Legislative Analyst, this number would cover the projected total cost of foregone fares on Muni and paratransit during that period.

It also stipulates that the program would be widely publicized, voluntary payment would be allowed and SFMTA would prepare three reports for the Board of Supervisors summarizing the pilot’s findings.

Supporters say it’s a surefire way to boost ridership on a transit system that’s hemorrhaged passengers for more than a year during the pandemic, support climate change goals and build equity into an essential service for low-income residents.

“This three-month pilot will not only reduce barriers to get people into and back on our buses and trains, but it will also put money directly into the pockets of people who need it the most,” said Supervisor Matt Haney, who has signed on as a co-sponsor to the legislation.

SFMTA has a number of existing free and discount fare programs for low- and moderate-income riders, including youth, seniors and people with disabilities as well as those experiencing homelessness, but a deep gulf remains between the number of passengers eligible for these programs and those accessing them.

As many as half of all eligible low-income riders over the last eight years did not enroll in the discounted monthly pass designed for people with fixed incomes, according to SFMTA data.

The agency also rolled out free Muni for travel to COVID-19 vaccination sites in February.

Transit officials acknowledged that going fare-free would almost certainly guarantee a spike in ridership, but they cautioned that current service levels cannot support a sudden boost in travelers.

Muni buses are already overcrowded and many passengers are already passed at the corner as a result.

The remedy is training existing bus operators to run trains and hiring additional employees to their posts behind the wheel of a bus as well as beefing up the roster of supervisors, all of which takes time.

SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin said it could take several months for the ongoing hiring process, already fast tracked to meet growing demand, to translate into additional service and capacity.

“From a staff recommendation standpoint and MTA board policy standpoint, our priorities right now are focused on addressing the severe crowding that we’re experiencing in the system every day,” he said in a delicately worded response to a question about the transit agency’s stance on a Free Muni pilot right now. “We’re also deeply concerned about service recovery,” he said.

Clashes between the Board of Supervisors and the SFMTA are not new. Last year, the transit agency board approved fare increases before being strongarmed by political maneuvering from the supervisors into backing down.

This round, the differences boil down to a key question: Do people use transit because it’s super affordable, or because it provides reliable, high quality service?

Advocates for Free Muni say more transit usage is beneficial, and that many of the nuanced debates over impacts and results can be sussed out through a pilot program like the one proposed.

But transit leaders counter that reliability and efficiency attract riders and keep them on the bus – and cutting fare revenues could make those things worse.

“What we are concerned about, though, is as we invite people back to the system and they’re faced with terribly crowded buses and being left behind at the curb, that that can unintentionally create even worse feelings about transit,” Tumlin said. “We want to make sure the service is there and people can actually access that service before we take on programs like making service free.”

The committee did not vote on Wednesday because the legislation was amended to increase the funding allotment from $9.3 million to $12.7 million to account for the cost of free paratransit over this period and slight increases in the projected ridership.

Members will vote next week on whether to formally move the item forward with recommendation for approval to the full board, but many spoke in favor of it on Wednesday.

“This is a three-month pilot that we can learn from,” Haney said. “And I think that will help us plan for the future as we think about the cost and the fares and the role that we need to play in investing in our transit system and reducing fares over the long term.”

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