Free Muni For Low-Income Youth Approved By SFMTA

Following a vote of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's Board of Directors, low-income youth will be able to ride the city's public transportation system for free. This decision, at least temporarily, concludes a multi-year debate over the role the city government should play in subsidizing transit access for local children.

The board unanimously approved a resolution earlier this week enacting a $1.6 million, 16-month pilot program beginning next spring giving a projected 40,000 low-income San Francisco residents under the age of 18 unlimited access to the city's public transit system.

Money for the program will come out of a $6.7 million grant from the Bay Area's regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission aimed at helping SFMTA increase its ridership.

"Because of these riders the system will be sustained," San Francisco Supervisor David Campos, who has long advocated for giving the city's youth free access to transit, told Bay City News. "It's helping low-income youth and making sure the system works."

Initially, some favored a considerably more ambitious approach that would give free Muni access to all San Franciscans under the age of 18. Critics worried that, even if the program was ultimately successful in increasing long-term Muni ridership and expanding transit access throughout the city, the limited-term nature of the grant would create a popular, albeit expensive, program that city leaders would feel obligated to extend well after the MTC's money ran out.

"Money that is eligible to maintain this system and reverse Muni's downward spiral is money that should be used for that purpose," Supervisor Scott Wiener charged at Board of Supervisors meeting last month. The supervisor, who led some of the political opposition to the larger plan, introduced a resolution calling on SFMTA to prioritize the funding for maintaining Muni's fleet of vehicles.

The compromise solution shortened the length of the pilot program, shrunk the targeted group and diverted the remaining $5.1 million toward upkeep of the city's light rail vehicles. According to a recent (must-read) article in SF Weekly, when it comes to maintenance, Muni needs all the help it can get.

"It's a balancing of different needs," SFMTA chief Ed Reiskin told the San Francisco Chronicle. "We have the needs of the system and we have the needs of the community."

Earlier this year, SFMTA applied directly to the MTC for $4 million to fund a similar program giving free Muni access to San Francisco youth, but that request was denied last month.

"I feel like my heart has been shattered in pieces," 17-year old Tina Sataraka told the Chronicle following that vote. "They're letting people in low-income communities down. It's like they don't care about us. It's like they're putting our youth under the buses."

Minors in San Francisco already get a discount on Muni fares: 75 cents as opposed to the two dollars. However, the overall cost of transportation can often be prohibitive for the city's poor youth. San Francisco has scaled back its school bus service by over 50 percent in recent years, leaving an increasing number of kids dependent on the city public transit system to get to school every day.

"A lot of our kids in our community go every day to school with fear because they don't have enough money to pay for the bus," activist Donaji Lona told KGO News.

The free Muni program is scheduled to run until the summer of 2014, when it will become eligible for renewal.