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Beyond Chron  (February 1, 2008)
San Francisco Bay View  (February 6, 2008)

Copyright © 2008 by Marc Norton


Matier and Ross, San Francisco's premier political gossips, say that Mayor Gavin Newsom plunked down $55,000 for a report telling him that making Muni free would get a lot of people to use public transit.

Hey, Gavin, anybody on the street could have told you that for zip. But what really takes the cake is that the well-paid consultants who wrote this report concluded that getting more people to use Muni would be a BAD thing.

The consultants estimate that free Muni would increase ridership by 35-40%. With around 700,000 boardings in an average day, that would mean something like 250,000 more trips. Think about that. Thousands and thousands of people getting out of their cars. Thousands and thousands more people going places in the City they couldn't afford to get to before. Less traffic congestion, less pollution, more people out and about enjoying themselves and probably spending money in SF businesses. How horrible!

Why would this be so BAD? Because it would cost Muni money. Wow. We paid $55,000 to learn that?

We all know Muni needs money. I mean, Muni chief Nathaniel Ford is worth every penny of that $336,000 salary we pay him. Then there are all those mayoral staffers (Willie called them "special assistants") being paid by Muni to buff the Mayor's policy-wonk image. Good thing we passed Supervisor Aaron Peskin's Prop A.

The consultants also tell us that free Muni would create a need for more buses, streetcars and trains, not to mention more drivers and mechanics.

Holy cow, Batman! Perhaps we should let these consultants in on a little secret -- Muni already needs more buses, streetcars and trains, not to mention more drivers and mechanics. Anybody who has ever tried to get to work in the morning on Muni knows that.

Here's my favorite argument against free Muni put forward by our esteemed consultants -- it "could adversely impact movement towards an integrated SMART-card based electronic fare collection system in the Bay Area." Talk about putting the cart before the horse! But the consultants have a solution to this problem: we could all use our SMART cards when we board Muni "solely as a means to count riders." How high-tech and cool, don't you think?

The consultants carefully delineate all the costs associated with free Muni in their 138-page report. But somehow they never get around to talking about the financial and societal benefits of taking thousands of cars off the streets every day. Nor do they consider the financial and societal benefits of less pollution, or of much greater mobility for thousands of San Franciscans.

Some "transit-first" city! Hurrah for our "Green Mayor!"

And here is a little gem that didn't make it into the Chronicle's front-page hit piece against free Muni. According to the report, elimination of various identified "fare related projects that would no longer be required... would result in a savings of approximately $255 million over the period of 2007-2037." That's in addition to the modest estimate that Muni would save $8.4 million per year in fare collection costs.

Okay, okay, you ask, where would we get the money to pay for free Muni? I'm glad you asked.

A couple of months ago, one of those blue-ribbon panels that mayors like to appoint delivered a preliminary blue-ribbon report on how to get more money for Muni. But, before they even began, they wantonly jettisoned the one and only real idea that makes any sense: taxing downtown big business and downtown landlords.

I confess, here I go again. How do all those downtown businesses, hotels, and landlords make their bucks? Off of people who come downtown to spend money, or to work for them, or both. And what makes downtown possible? Why, Muni of course. Take Muni out of the equation, and downtown is just one big highrise ghost town.

And who pays for Muni now? Why, everybody except downtown businesses, hotels and landlords. Apparently, that is the natural order of things.

Right now we are building downtown a small empire of vertical gated communities for millionaires and billionaires. I say we turn those skyscrapers upside down and shake some moola out of those rich dude's pockets.

If they don't like it, let them buy a condo in Fresno.

If Don Fisher can plunk down $100 million or more just to display his art collection at the Presidio, let's expropriate those millions to buy buses, streetcars and trains, and hang his art in Muni Metro where everybody can see it -- for free of course.

Free Muni! Free San Francisco!

 
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