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SFMTA Looks to Expand Free and Discounted Muni Fares

  • SFMTA plans to "remove barriers" to its subsidized fare programs, which offer free and discounted passes to youth, seniors, disabled and low-income riders

  • The agency will take up the issue in the late summer or fall, and is currently focused on ramping up service to 85% of pre-pandemic levels by January 2022

  • Mayor London Breed plans to veto a Free Muni resolution, a proposal that sparked sharp disagreement among members of the Board of Supervisors as well as transit officials

San Francisco municipal transit won't be free anytime soon, but SFMTA plans to "remove barriers" to free and discounted fares for low-income riders, Director Jeffrey Tumlin said this week.

The subject arose out of debates on whether to pilot a free Muni program this summer, which sought to eliminate fares for all riders as an incentive to return to public transit. The proposal, which passed the Board of Supervisors in a 7-4 vote but is set to be vetoed by Mayor London Breed, sparked fierce disagreement among City officials.

Breed, SFMTA officials and the four dissenting Supervisors said that the City's limited funds would be better spent restoring service, rather than making fares free for riders who may not need it. Fares represent about 18% of SFMTA's total operating revenue in a typical year.

"One of the things we certainly acknowledged in the fare policy discussions for Muni is that, while we have invested significantly in free and discounted fare programs for people with the greatest needs, that for many individuals it is challenging to take advantage of the programs we officer," said Tumlin at a board meeting on Tuesday.

The SFMTA board will take up the issue in August or September, said Tumlin, and focus on ways to broaden access to fare assistance programs. SFMTA offers a range of fare discounts for youth, seniors, people with disabilities and those on a limited income.

Members of the public urged SFMTA to restore full Muni service as quickly as possible, including service to underserved neighborhoods as well as night trips.

"With the federal relief funds, as people who only ride public transit in this town, we are concerned that the routes aren't coming back," said Hamilton Carter, a resident of the Excelsior. That neighborhood saw the 52 Excelsior, a key route connecting the McClaren Park area to Mission St. and Glen Park, suspended during COVID.

"I'm left with this impression that based on the economic strata of neighborhoods, perhaps we're not welcome in Glen Park anymore," said Carter. "I would like to see federal funds spent to get open up the Muni lines back to where they were."

SFMTA plans to restore 85% of pre-COVID service by January 2022, but is currently grappling with an operator shortage and other logistical challenges brought about by COVID-19. The agency also plans to loosen capacity restrictions alongside California's statewide reopening planned for June 15.

During the lowest point of the pandemic, Muni ridershipwhich averaged around 714,000 boardings on weekdays pre-pandemic⁠—plunged more than 80%, blowing a hole in SFMTA's budget. SFMTA collected roughly $200 million per year in revenue from fares prior to the pandemic.

SFMTA's near-term budget crisis was averted by federal stimulus money, with the agency expected to receive close to $300 million from the American Rescue Plan, a second COVID relief package enacted in March.


Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup

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