Newsom to explore fare-free Muni 

Muni’s fare evaders have been costing the transit agency millions of dollars a year. Now, Mayor Gavin Newsom is considering free rides for all.

Newsom has asked the Municipal Transportation Agency, which oversees Muni, to examine a fare-free Muni system. The request comes as the agency struggles to boost ridership and improve reliability while at the same time faces multimillion-dollar budget deficits each year.

Newsom said the costs of collecting the revenue, which includes the necessary equipment and proper staffing to stopfare evaders, "is such that one can make an argument that we are collecting as much as we’re spending."

The MTA anticipates $137.6 million in transit fare revenue during the upcoming fiscal year, which represents about 20 percent of the agency’s operating budget, one of the lowest fare-collection rates in the nation.

Muni would become the first transit agency in the nation to become completely fare-free. Portland, Ore., offers a free service mostly in its downtown area. Muni is the busiest transit agency in the region with a daily ridership of about 700,000.

The possibility of a free Muni comes as the transit agency is undergoing a comprehensive study of the system. The study, due out by the end of the year, is expected to result in a major overhaul of Muni.

"We’ve been doing — quietly — an analysis. We’re just crunching numbers. We’re just seeing if it’s a terrible idea or a good idea," Newsom said.

City Controller Ed Harrington said the idea of a fare-free Muni is "not irrational."

He added, however, that The City would have to figure out how to make up the loss of fare revenue.

Harrington said that without fares, the transit system would run faster. "You really end up with a much more efficiently running shop if you didn’t have to bother to collect the money," Harrington said.

During select days of the year known as "Spare the Air" days, when the public can ride Muni without paying, ridership has increased by as much as 14 percent.

"Is it a good idea? I don’t know. But I think it makes sense to do the investigation to find out," said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the public policy think tank San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. "What Muni is doing currently isn’t working."

Andrew Sullivan, co-chairman of the community group Rescue Muni, expressed doubts about the idea. "I’d say if an extra$138 million came along, I’d say put that into service," he said.

The MTA board of directors recently closed a deficit by raising parking garage rates, auto tow fines and implementing a new $25 collection free for citation scofflaws. The agency is expected to face $50 million to $70 million budget deficit by fiscal year 2008-09.

Newsom said MTA staff would provide him with analysis of a fare-free Muni in the next few weeks.

"It’s worth exploring. But it’s not going to happen this year," Newsom said. "If we are going to do it, we would address it on a piloted basis very thoughtfully." He added, "We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves here. It could be a terrible idea."

Board a fan of young-rider discounts

Amid talk of a plan to offer free Muni rides for all, the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution Tuesday urging Muni to offer a discounted fare to young adults.

The resolution, authored by Supervisor Jake McGoldrick, was initially defeated in a 6-5 vote. But when news spread that Mayor Gavin Newsom was advocating a possible fare-free transit system, Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin called for another vote.

Peskin then changed his earlier "no" vote to a "yes" vote, allowing the resolution to pass in a 6-5 vote.

"The mayor has come forward with an intriguing concept — and so if we are going to have the discussions, let’s have the discussion about free Muni. Let’s have the discussion about making it cheaper for young adults. So let’s throw it all on the table," Peskin said when asked after the board meeting why he switched his vote.

During the meeting, Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, one of Newsom’s allies on the board, asked Peskin to stick with his "no" vote to reject fare discounts for young adults.

"I would just suggest that you stay strong with your initial beliefs when you came here and not allow yourself to fall victim to what appears on just the surface, just the surface, to be a bit of an election-year gimmick," Elsbernd said.

Newsom denied that his exploration of a fare-free Muni had anything to do with his upcoming re-election campaign. "I don’t want it to become an election-year issue. I don’t want to politicize it," Newsom said.

Tuesday’s resolution on young-adult fares urges the Municipal Transportation Agency, which oversees Muni, to provide a discounted Fast Pass to those from 18 to 21 years of age, amended from an earlier proposal to offer discounts to 18- to 24-year-olds. Fast Passes cost $45 per month. The amended resolution advocates a $30 fast Pass for the 18-to-21 age bracket, beginning January 2008. It would cost Muni about $3.1 million to offer the discount for a full year.

Elsbernd said he voted against the resolution because additional Muni revenue should go toward improving service.

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