A downtown tax for free buses

Muni could be subsidized by the latest boom

EDITORIAL Free Muni is a great idea. It's an even better — and more realistic — idea if the mayor is willing to support a tax on downtown office buildings to pay for it.

That's what Mayor Gavin Newsom needs to be talking about — and if he doesn't, the supervisors need to push the idea.

We've been calling for free Muni since at least 1993, when we ran a cover story explaining how the idea would work. It's always made sense for San Francisco: eliminating bus fares would encourage more people to get out of their cars, which would eliminate traffic congestion, pollution, and safety problems and set a standard for fighting global warming. Without having to worry about fare collection, drivers could move the buses along faster (and pay more attention to driving). And the city would save a lot of money that's currently spent collecting and counting fares and monitoring fare cheats.

Besides, as we pointed out back then, it's a great economic boost for the city: if all the people who currently pay $45 a month for a fast pass could hold on to that money, millions of dollars in consumer spending would likely be pumped into local business.

But here's the rub: Muni collects about $138 million in fares every year — and the system needs more money, not less. Free Muni will inevitably spur more ridership — that, after all, is the whole point — so the cost of operating the system will rise even further. The city doesn't exactly have $138 million in extra General Fund cash to throw around. So there has to be a new source of revenue to fund this plan.

So far Newsom hasn't said a word about that — which is all too typical. The mayor loves to advance all sorts of ideas without explaining how the city's going to pay for them. And then, not surprisingly, a lot of his plans never go anywhere.

But in this case there's an excellent way to make the numbers add up. For more than 30 years, San Francisco activists have been promoting the idea of a special tax district downtown, with revenue going directly to Muni. It's got political and economic logic: a significant amount of Muni's operational budget goes to ferrying workers to office buildings in the Financial District, and since those buildings tend to be vastly undertaxed (thanks to Proposition 13), the city ought to levy a special fee every year to help underwrite transportation.

San Francisco has about 80 million square feet of commercial office space in the central downtown core. An annual tax of as little as $2 per square foot would provide more than enough money to cover the cost of free bus service citywide. The money would come from those most able to pay — building owners and the (typically) large, wealthy businesses that rent downtown. The benefits would go to the (typically) less-wealthy people who ride the buses every day.

It's green, it's fair, it's creative, it's economically sound — all the things Mayor Newsom likes to talk about. All he has to do is announce a proposal to pay for free Muni with a downtown tax district, and his plan might actually have a chance of working. Since that's unlikely, we urge the supervisors to take up the initiative: yes, let's have free Muni — and let's make downtown pay for it. *