A pilot plan to offer free Muni rides in San Francisco this summer was approved by the Board of Supervisors Tuesday, but Mayor London Breed quickly doused enthusiasm with an announcement that she plans to veto the proposal.
In a 7-4 vote, supervisors Tuesday approved a budget appropriation of $12.5 million and a companion ordinance to create the free Muni pilot program that would have launched July 1 and run through the end September. Under the program, fare payment would be voluntary and enforcement would be suspended.
Hours following the vote, the San Francisco Chronicle learned from the Office of Mayor that Breed plans to veto the proposal once it arrives on her desk.
The pilot program is supported by supervisors Matt Haney, Hillary Ronen, Aaron Peskin, Gordon Mar, Shamann Walton, Connie Chan and Dean Preston. Preston sponsored the legislation and introduced it in tandem with Haney. With only seven supervisors in support, the board lacks the votes to override the mayor’s veto, which requires eight supervisors to succeed.
Even without the impending veto, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Board of Directors would have to accept the funding and amend its budget sometime next month before the pilot begins. It was unclear how directors would have decided, but the agency’s top transit official has been less than keen on the idea.
Preston said during Tuesday’s meeting that timing is perfect to test out the free transit program due to already decreased revenue and ridership driven by the Covid-19 pandemic. He added that it is critical to encourage passengers to return to Muni buses and trains in an effort to avoid pre-pandemic traffic congestion, which is already on the rise.
“We absolutely must do anything and everything we can to expand Muni ridership, make sure that Muni not only survives but rebound strong and recover strong.”
He added that the free Muni pilot program would put money back into the pockets of passengers, especially those who have struggled financially during the pandemic. The current cost of an adult monthly Muni ‘M’ Fast Pass is $81. A Muni passenger would potentially save $243 during the three-month pilot period.
Preston said the program would accomplish multiple goals, including saving passengers money, incentivizing people to ride public transit and meeting The City’s climate goals.
Not all supervisors were on board with the initiative, noting that the the agency has yet to restore Muni service in specific neighborhoods. Earlier this month, the SFMTA relaunched subway service and the F-Market and Wharves line, and has plans for additional service restoration in August.
Still, it was unclear when some bus and rail service will come back beyond the August service restoration, transit officials said earlier Tuesday morning during a meeting at the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.
Supervisor Myrna Melgar said she does support reducing the SFMTA’s reliance on fare for future budgeting, however, she pointed out that many District 7 routes are still not running and that the agency is experiencing an operator and staff shortage that would be exacerbated by additional riders drawn to the free program.
“I cannot in good faith vote for the supplemental while my constituents are in a transit desert.”
Preston pushed back on Melgar’s objections by saying that the pilot program would not affect the agency’s ability to restore more service and that its funding would come from The City’s Covid-19 contingency reserve.
He added that Muni passenger capacity limits may not be problematic — an issue brought up by SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin at the Budget Appropriations Committee two weeks ago.
Julie Kirschbaum, SFMTA’s director of transit, said at the transportation authority meeting Tuesday that the agency is working toward lifting capacity restrictions by mid-June, though key steps need to be taken before doing so, including finalizing plans with the Department of Public Health and the union that represents Muni operators.
Supervisor Ahsha Safai, who voting against the pilot program, said he is not clear how the pilot would help restore service and deal with crowding issues, adding:
“My constituents are concerned about reliability. They’re concerned about restoring service, and they’re concerned about getting operators back on these lines.”
He also cast doubt on whether the SFMTA Board of Directors will accept the funding offer. Safai said:
“There’s many things that are larger priorities at this moment, and spending $13 million on a program that I don’t believe SFMTA would implement even if the money were sent to them.”
Peskin said he believes supervisors who voted against the program made a “huge mistake” that could harm a future ballot measure that would support the agency’s structural deficit.
“What you’re going to do is ultimately lead to something where the actual structural revenue measure that we need to put on the ballot is going to be doomed.”