“We always sell what we can’t own” —Fugazi
There is a lot of talk these days about making Muni free. Talk, of course, is cheap. Muni, at $3 a pop for severely curtailed service, is less so.
But Muni is not going to be free. Not in the short term and, likely, not in the long term either.
There are reasons for this, both good and bad, and spoken and unspoken. We’ve heard them all.
First, the procedural: By a 7-4 vote, the Board of Supervisors last week approved Supervisor Dean Preston’s proposal to allot $12.5 million in general fund money for three months of a free Muni “pilot program.” Now, seven is more than four — but it’s also less than eight. It takes eight votes to override a mayoral veto, and Mayor London Breed has pledged that she will indeed veto this proposal.
Well there you go. But, as we’ve seen in the recent past, even if all 11 supervisors voted in the affirmative — even if Christ caught the 76X bus from Heaven to cast a 12th vote — the mayor was not ostensibly obligated to spend this money. And, to top it off, the (100 percent mayorally appointed) MTA Board would’ve had to accept this allocation, too — over the strenuous objections of both its own agency and board members’ appointing authority.
So, the potential outcomes for Preston’s legislation are a little bit like sitting in a puddle on a Muni bus: There are plenty of possibilities here, but none ends well.
In a nutshell, that’s why we won’t have free Muni, not even a three-month “pilot program:” The mayor doesn’t want it, and the agency doesn’t want it.
There are lots of reasons for this. Some of them withstand scrutiny. Some don’t.
Separate and apart from questions about farebox recovery or funding sources or infrastructure or sustainability, one of the reasons Municipal Transportation Agency officials are dead set against free Muni is fear.
Are there fears within MTA HQ at 1 South Van Ness that, sans barriers — fares, or even physical barriers such as turnstiles — that Muni vehicles will become rolling homeless shelters? Is this a possibility that is fretted over at the agency’s highest echelons?
“Oh God, yeah,” confirms an MTA source. “The question is, do we lose 20 percent of our ridership because we gain 5 percent homeless people? That is a real fear people have. We already have a problem cleaning our buses. We already have a problem with operator assaults.”
Adds another MTA official, there is also “a fear of the fear of that” — a concern that, legitimately or not, the public will perceive that Muni vehicles are refuges for only those who cannot be literally anywhere else, propelling us further into the vortex of the Muni Death Spiral.
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Top brass at 1 South Van Ness, we are told, are also hung up on the notion of giving away service to out-of-towners and tourists; if the Johansson family is going to visit from Oslo, in other words, they better be prepared to fork over their 25 Kroner fares.
And yet, San Francisco is a place that forces many a city native into being an out-of-towner (or, for that matter, taking refuge on a bus). And, based upon Muni’s own 2017 survey data, there are not disproportionate numbers of wealthy folks riding transit who’d unfairly benefit from a fare holiday: 52 percent of riders polled earned less than $50,000 a year, and 73 percent earned less than $75,000.
The neighborhood with the greatest Muni use relative to pre-pandemic levels, by far, is Bayview Hunters Point. This is not a part of San Francisco known for its great wealth or its transit alternatives.
Meanwhile, to qualify for a reduced — not free — lifeline Muni pass, you need to earn 200 percent of the federal poverty level or less. That’s $25,520 for an individual, maximum, meaning a full-time San Francisco minimum wage worker earns too much money.
This is absurd and, regardless of one’s position on making Muni free, this threshold could and should be increased by tens of thousands of dollars. Arguments that saving six bucks a day in Muni fares won’t change anyone’s life come off as callous and classist: That prorates to $1,500 a year, not including weekends.
But there are other fears fueling Muni officials’ trepidation at giving away their product for free, and these are more fact-based and grounded in reality. These are fears of San Francisco’s government.
San Francisco’s government is great at taking things from Muni. It’s great at siphoning transit money into mayoral staffers’ salaries; city departments are great at pillaging Muni to balance their own budgets. And, while all this was happening, San Francisco politicians have been great at proposing that Muni’s service be made free for broader and broader swaths of the population.
But San Francisco’s government is not as good at giving things to Muni. Namely: Operating funds. In 2013, a city task force identified some $10 billion in needed infrastructure investments by 2030. The mayor’s office identified several bold methods of allocating a fraction of this amount (focusing, as always, on capital costs, not operating costs).
To date, an even smaller fraction of that fraction has actually been generated: dimes on the dollar.
And this, says a Muni insider — more than enmity for the Johanssons or dubious, knee-jerk worries about homeless battalions besieging the buses — is the real fear for MTA officials when politicians begin suggesting Muni be made free: “In this city, funding promises don’t come through.”
Preston stresses that his proposed pilot would only be a three-month hitch; unlike eviction moratoriums, this is not something he intends to renew again and again and again. He points out that there has never been a more economical time to attempt such a program: Muni ridership is around a quarter of the level it was prior to the pandemic; if you’re going to forego farebox revenue, you’ll never forego less.
And, while Muni management has expressed concern about driver availability, the drivers’ union hasn’t. “We want runs to be running,” said Transit Workers Union executive vice president Pete Wilson. “We like to work.”
The agency, after all, has been given funds to not run over the past year, and the city continues to not only be solvent, but flush with money. The $12.5 million Preston proposed allotting to Muni was, again, from the city’s General Fund, not Muni funds.
Yes, $12.5 million represents around 1/500th of the general fund.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin likens temporarily waiving transit fares to landlords hoping to entice tenants into vacant city apartments by offering several months of free rent. It’s not so wild a notion: BART is offering 50 percent off all rides in September in an attempt to woo back its wayward riders.
That makes some sense: But Muni officials aren’t buying it. And that’s simply because they don’t see the proposed pilot as a one-off or a loss leader so much as a stalking horse for permanent free Muni.
Even as a so-called pilot, it’s not ideal: You’d have to expect more folks are going to be on Muni in the coming months than the preceding ones regardless, because society is opening up. More than 70 percent of San Franciscans have had their first vaccine shots and mandatory distancing on Muni vehicles will be curtailed in June.
Parsing ridership data for the next few months and pinpointing a single for a jump cause would figure to be nigh impossible. And, when you’re done, you’re right back where you started, with free-Muni proponents potentially claiming a mandate for more.
Free Muni or not Free Muni? That is the question. It’s also, sadly, the epitome of San Francisco politics: A flashy and limted proposal that does not address the city’s real and looming problems, induces poor arguments for an untenable status quo, and monopolizes time as a municipal obsession.
Because, make no mistake, Muni is in a bad way: Returning to full service will also bring about a return to an estimated $155 million operating deficit by 2022 (even assuming normal farebox recovery). And, keep in mind, eventually the Central Subway will open — sometime — and be the predictable and predicted disaster everyone has foreseen for damn near 20 years, draining money and resources from a system with too little of both.
If these and other problems aren’t addressed, the system will have greater problems than its fare levels. Free admission to a crappy and unreliable system is no prize: If things go truly badly, you’ll have trouble giving away this service. And the only people who’ll take it will be those without options.
We are told that Muni has polled revenue-generating measures we may be voting on in the coming years. Good luck: San Francisco’s electorate is a generous lot. But Muni’s nasty habit of willfully punishing its riders and then hiding behind its hyperbolically bad reputation (while, in fact, enhancing it) may not be remembered kindly when Muni asks San Franciscans for gobs more money. City politicians’ squabbles about Muni will, also, not benefit a ballot proposition that will likely require unity to have any real hope of success.
That’s how things roll in San Francisco, where our leaders still talk about how we’re a “transit-first city.” Because talk is cheap. It’s transit that’s costly.