San Francisco supervisors Dean Preston and Matt Haney want to implement a three-month free-for-all Muni program that would roll out this summer, if approved.

Preston, a consistently staunch advocate for free public transportation, said at Tuesday’s board meeting that he is working with the City Attorney’s and Controller’s offices to draft a $9.3 million budget supplemental that would specifically fund the program. If approved by supervisor majority and signed by the mayor, the pilot would launch on July 1 and last through September.

Preston said that now, with low ridership and recent federal funding, is the perfect time to test out a free Muni program for all passengers, something he sees as long overdue.

The current cost of a monthly adult Muni-only Fast Pass is $81 — an adult Fast Pass that includes Muni and BART  access runs $98.

Preston said:

“San Francisco residents, as you know, have been hit hard by Covid-19 and the ensuing economic recession. Free Muni will put money back in people’s pockets.”

The pilot program would incentivize residents to use public transportation and help The City reach its Vision Zero and climate goals. Preston said:

“We need to do everything possible to make sure people get back on public transportation, not back in their cars as we recover from the pandemic.”

He added that the pilot would help city officials make informed decisions about free public transportation programs in the future.

Under the proposed program, fare payment would be voluntary and the agency would suspend fare enforcement aboard Muni vehicles.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency currently offers free Muni for low- and middle-income youth and seniors, as well as persons with disabilities. The agency is also offering free Muni rides to vaccination sites.

Preston’s announcement of the proposal comes as public transit agencies across the nation have seen a decrease in ridership and a drop in revenue since the pandemic began in late March. The SFMTA had to cut dozens of Muni routes at the beginning of the pandemic just leaving 17 core bus routes for passengers who still relied on Muni service to get to work.

The SFMTA’s revenue stream — mostly supported by The City’s general fund with about 20 percent generated by fare boxes, parking, fines and fees — took a large hit during the pandemic. One-time funding sources from government stimulus packages have kept the agency afloat.

The agency has gradually restored approximately 70 percent of its service hours, with plans to be back to 85 percent by early next year. Preston said his pilot program proposal would not hinder the agency’s restoration plans, adding:

“A return to full service and piloting free Muni during our recovery are not mutually exclusive. They’re actually two sides of the same coin.”

The supervisor noted other that major cities, such as Boston, Washington D.C. and Fresno, have either carried out or are exploring free public transportation programs for passengers.

Haney said it was important to get people back onto public transportation instead of getting back into their cars and reduce any barriers that people may have accessing Muni:

“I think that we have a transformational opportunity here to demonstrate our commitment as a transit first city to getting folks into buses and trains and incentivizing it in every way possible.”

SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato said in a statement that given the agency’s structural deficit, the SFMTA welcomes any help from The City’s general fund, but said the agency remains unclear on the study objectives of the proposed pilot. She noted that the agency stopped enforcing fares several months during the pandemic; however, fare enforcement resumed in early December.

Kato added:

“We want to make Muni affordable to all San Franciscans, but we need to have a productive conversation about the best use of $9 million from the general fund. We’re always looking for ways to remove barriers and make Muni more accessible— and restoring our service and focusing on reliability are the most equitable ways to create access with one-time funds.”

Jerold Chinn
Jerold Chinn is the San Francisco Bureau Chief of SFBay. A San Francisco native, he has spent a decade covering transportation in San Francisco. Send tips to jerold@sfbay.ca or at Twitter @Jerold_Chinn.

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