Muni’s latest giveaway is questionable policy, executed poorly 

click to enlarge Low- and moderate-income seniors will soon be able to ride Muni for free, but at what cost does it come to the SFMTA’s bottom line? Muni rides are already heavily subsidized. - GABRIELLE LURIE/S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • Gabrielle Lurie/S.F. Examiner file photo
  • Low- and moderate-income seniors will soon be able to ride Muni for free, but at what cost does it come to the SFMTA’s bottom line? Muni rides are already heavily subsidized.

The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions. Here in San Francisco, we value good intentions above all else. And, as such, we have gone into long-term bonded debt to pave that road.

Last week, Mayor Ed Lee disseminated an ebullient news release, thanking the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board of directors for acquiescing to his desires and providing disabled people and low- to moderate-income seniors with free Muni. That the SFMTA board acceded to the mayor's wishes is no surprise. It serves roughly the same role as the referee at a pro wrestling match.

This is the same body that obeisantly voted to do away with Sunday parking meters at the mayor's insistence only months after voting for Sunday parking meters. Between the $11 million in lost parking revenue, the $4 million dropped by making Muni free for low-income children and the anticipated $4.4 million hit from this latest gift, that is roughly $20 million depleted from the SFMTA's operating budget ­— every year.

But that's the nature of the SFMTA in this city. It serves as the vehicle for demonstrations of beneficence by city politicians, who then turn around and stick the SFMTA with the bill. More and more people are being funneled onto an increasingly overtaxed transit system that, simultaneously, is being denied sources of revenue.

You will not see opposition to these giveaways because it is politically detrimental to be portrayed as belittling the needs of impoverished children, seniors or disabled people; elected leaders are loath to, in essence, toss apple pies onto mom.

So, fine. Make Muni free for more and more people. Maybe one day make it free for everyone — it will serve as the escalators in our department store of a city.

But do not put the burden of solving San Francisco's Rwanda-caliber income inequities on Muni alone. Do not carve out ever more classes of riders who will be squired about at the expense of everyone else.

If a city dweller is unable to afford an already heavily subsidized $23 monthly pass, that is not a Muni problem. It is a city problem. San Francisco's wallet ought to back up its good intentions. Pay for free Muni rides out of the general fund, not the Muni operating budget — which is ostensibly earmarked for maintenance, reliability and keeping vehicles coated in only an acceptable level of filth.

Having The City fund its increasing demands of Muni in a manner that did not starve the system would be difficult to oppose. But, even still, this is a curious approach to San Francisco's Dickensian wealth disparity. Under the adopted system, a disabled billionaire or 65-year-old earning up to $68,000 a year will enjoy a free ride, while an adult earning less than $23,000 a year will still shell out $34 a month for a Lifeline pass. And anyone earning more will pay full price.

Then there is the larger and more nuanced discussion about tiered pricing systems that will never be taken up, since even free riders will still disgorge the going rate when Muni drops them off at BART or Caltrain.

Announcing the latest bonanza, Lee called upon "the private sector to partner with us, once again, and help fund this vital service that supports our city's most vulnerable."

Google, which had something of a public-relations problem regarding its private buses squatting in Muni stops, earlier kicked down $6.8 million over two years to fund the free Muni for youths program. Fair enough. But that money is, very much, not guaranteed in perpetuity. And allowing massive corporations playing no small role in this city's affordability crisis to pay relatively token sums to save face both creates a dependence upon them and makes it that much more difficult to enact policies that might lead to these funds being curtailed.

Government by Papal Indulgence: That is how San Francisco rolls.

But do not sweat it. This is still Muni, after all. There is at least a 40-plus percent chance your increasingly hellish ride to hell will be delayed.

Joe Eskenazi is a staff writer at SF Weekly, a sister publication of The San Francisco Examiner. Email him at

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