There's been an argument in recent months between SFMTA chief Jeffrey Tumlin and Supervisors Matt Haney and Dean Preston over whether or not to use this limbo moment as the pandemic fades to finally offer Muni rides for free. But can the system handle a sudden surge in ridership (if that actually happens)?

Making Muni totally free has been a goal of Preston and some progressives for years now, and with a bunch of federal funding having flown the city's way for transit, and with ridership still low, they say now is the time to try it out. (Preston even tried to make an April Fool's Day joke out of it on Twitter, and failed.)

Along with Haney, Preston introduced legislation in mid-April to launch a three-month pilot program making Muni free for all starting July 1, and running through the end of September. Initial estimates put the cost of the program between $9.3 million and $10 million.

Companion legislation shifts Muni fare-enforcement staff to performing safety duties during the pilot program, and requires the SFMTA to put out messaging telling riders that fare-paying is voluntary.

"A return to full service and piloting Free Muni during our recovery are not mutually exclusive," Preston said in a statement. "They are two sides of the same coin. Our goal is to make sure public transportation is extensive and widely-used, especially as we recover from this pandemic."

If people continue not to use Muni buses and trains in the coming two months over ongoing safety concerns from COVID-19, will removing their $2.50 fare obligation really change that? And among a certain segment of the bus-riding population, Muni is always free... until a fare inspector shows up.

Tumlin has argued that this isn't such a great time to be experimenting with a fragile system, just as it tries to recover from 14 months of curtailed service. Bus lines still aren't adequately staffed with drivers to handle a major uptick in ridership — and until social-distancing requirements are lifted, presumably next month, buses are still filling to their restricted capacities and passing by riders at bus stops on the regular.

Preston has framed his argument for free Muni around essential workers, and the need to encourage Muni ridership among low-income populations. Haney continues to say that putting more people on buses and trains will mean fewer cars on the street — but will it? Car traffic seems to have returned to pre-pandemic levels, while Muni ridership is still at about 30%, but we're only a week out from train service returning to tunnels, and hardly anyone has gone back to their offices downtown.

Even with funding from the Biden Administration relieving the SFMTA of its immediate budget woes and preventing some major layoffs, Tumlin has only pledged to get the Muni system back to 85% of its pre-pandemic service level by next January. Does that sound like a system that can handle a potential crush of riders taking advantage of free rides? And when commuters do start needing the trains again in, say, August or September, will they really want to be fighting for space with people riding for free just for the hell of it?

An opinion piece in the Chronicle today pushes for compromise between Tumlin and the supervisors — perhaps pushing off the pilot program for a few months until Muni is back on solid footing, service-wise.

It remains to be seen how the rest of the supervisors will come down on the issue when the legislation comes up for a vote. But the Budget and Appropriations Committee approved it last week with a 4-1 vote, if that's any indication.

Photo: sftma_muni/Twitter