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'Free Muni' Pilot Will Advance to Full Board of Supervisors Vote

  • A Board of Supervisors budget committee approved the appropriation of $12.5 million from San Francisco's COVID emergency reserves to fund three months of free Muni service this summer

  • SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin has raised concerns about the proposal, saying that riders overwhelmingly want quality service, as opposed to free service, and that a sudden glut of riders could degrade quality

  • The Free Muni proposal will advance to the full Board of Supervisors for a vote on May 25

A controversial proposal to make San Francisco public transit free this summer was approved by a Board of Supervisors budget committee and will be scrutinized by the full board next week.

The proposal seeks to eliminate fares for Muni over a three-month period from July through September 2021. Based on the agency's expectations of ridership over that period, San Francisco must compensate the lost revenue to the tune of $12.5 million. If the proposal is ultimately approved, those funds will be appropriated from the City's COVID reserves.

At a meeting Wednesday, Sup. Dean Preston and Sup. Matt Haney, both of whom support the proposal, said it would lure riders back to public transit and put money back in people's pockets. Muni fares currently range from $2.50 to $3 per adult, with various discounts and fare waivers for youth, seniors, people with disabilities and people experiencing homelessness.

In the depths of the pandemic, Muni daily ridership⁠—which hovered around 714,000 boardings per weekday prior to COVID⁠—plunged more than 80%, leaving a gaping hole in San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency's budget. SFMTA collected roughly $200 million per year in revenue from fares prior to the pandemic.

SFMTA's immediate budget crisis is ameliorated by federal stimulus funds, with the agency set to receive $297 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan, a second COVID relief package passed into law earlier this year. The agency is nonetheless facing a longer-term structural deficit that projects expenditures outpacing revenues over the next several years.

At a budget committee meeting last week, SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin, flanked by finance officers at the agency, argued that riders choose public transit because of quality and reliability, not price, and that making fares free could have the unintended consequence of degrading quality of service.

With ridership gradually increasing, Tumlin said that buses have grown crowded enough on certain popular routes that operators are having to leave riders at the curb. That, combined with required COVID-19 safety protocols such as sanitizing buses in-between routes, means that the agency not be able to easily handle a sudden increase in ridership due to free fares, he added.

"What we're concerned about that as we invite be back to the system, and they're faced with terribly crowded buses and being left behind at the curb, that can unintentionally create worse feelings about transit," Tumlin 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."

"That data is abundantly clear is that what really drives ridership is quality of service, across all incomes," he added.

The proposal is set to advance to the full Board of Supervisors for a vote on Tuesday, May 25. Should it pass, the budget amendment will then advance to SFMTA's board for a vote on whether or not to approve the change.


Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup

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