May 12—Fare-free Muni this summer is one step closer, though the proposal’s fate will hinge on more procedural votes before becoming reality.

The proposal by Supervisors Dean Preston and Matt Haney to test free fares on Muni transit in a pilot program from July through September cleared its first bureaucratic hurdle Wednesday after gaining approval from City Hall’s Budget and Appropriations Committee.

While the proposal has support from several members of the Board of Supervisors, its future remains unclear. At Wednesday’s committee meeting, Jeffrey Tumlin, director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, expressed concerns about the program’s impact on the transit agency as it works to restore pre-pandemic services and ramp up the agency’s capacity.

Supervisors supporting the $12.5 million proposal stressed that it would be temporary and not impact the SFMTA’s budget, nor its plans to restore service. The appropriation approved Wednesday is slightly higher than the original $9.3 million estimate to account for rising ridership projections as well as to fund free paratransit services.

Preston, who has advocated that the city’s transit agency make fares free during the pandemic, said the timing is ripe for trying universal free Muni transit.

Muni ridership, though recovering, remains near historic lows, meaning a lower price tag is needed to compensate the agency for lost fare revenue, Preston said. Data would be available for the city to determine the impact of such a program and who will benefit, and it could be a boon for boosting ridership when the agency has recovered only about half of its usual weekday bus riders.

“Fundamentally, we need to get more people on public transit,” Preston said.

But much of Wednesday’s discussion centered on concerns from Muni’s top official about how the program would affect the agency as it attempts to increase service. Tumlin argued that Muni already offers free or subsidized fares for low-income residents, and that such a program would more likely benefit affluent residents.

Tumlin also said that while the agency’s big-picture goal is to bring ridership to pre-pandemic levels, offering free fares could increase ridership beyond the agency’s capacity to provide reliable service. The agency, he said, is still hampered by COVID-19 measures such as social distancing that have reduced capacity on buses, resulting in people being passed up at bus stops.

Muni officials, who were lukewarm when the proposal was announced in April, have argued that the funding for the pilot program would be better used for restoring services and improving reliability.

Permanent fare-free Muni would likely require a ballot measure, a hurdle that has doomed efforts to subsidize Muni transit for all.

Wednesday’s vote came as SFMTA plans to roll out restorations Saturday that include restoring Muni Metro Subway service and the historic F-line streetcar that runs from the Castro to Fisherman’s Wharf.

The committee approval was the first vote fare-free Muni needs to clear in order to be implemented. The SFMTA Board of Directors would have to vote to approve a budget amendment, which would then require a vote by the full Board of Supervisors and a sign-off by Mayor London Breed.

Ricardo Cano is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: ricardo.cano@sfchronicle.com

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