Free Muni plan’s defeat a setback for youths, city 

A long-discussed and laudable plan to provide free Muni passes to The City’s low-income youths received a potentially fatal blow Wednesday, when the Metropolitan Transportation Commission denied a request to fund the program.

The plan was an interesting and novel idea, promoted by grass-roots organizations and county supervisors. Muni would set up a 22-month pilot program in which San Francisco’s poorest children and adolescents — about 40,000 youths — would receive free passes for The City’s bus and subway lines. They could use these passes to get to school quickly and efficiently.

Unfortunately, such a program would cost millions of dollars. San Francisco had agreed to pony up $4.4 million to fund the plan, but Muni officials needed another $5 million to get it up and running.

And so backers turned to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the body responsible for planning, constructing and financing public transit for the Bay Area. If Muni couldn’t round up the remaining funding, the plan was effectively dead in the water.

Unfortunately, MTC representatives from the North Bay and the East Bay asked why San Francisco’s low-income youths should be given free access to public transit, while their own low-income children would still have to scramble to figure out their own transportation needs. Alameda and Santa Clara counties soon added their own requests for subsidized discounts for low-income residents.

The vote was a razor-thin margin of 8-7. But in the end, the MTC denied funding for all three counties. Youth advocates and teenagers in the meeting exploded in outrage, chanting “Shame on you!” and denouncing the commission’s members.

The MTC’s reluctance to fund a free San Francisco transit program while denying other counties the same privilege is understandable. But the Muni board was not asking for a permanent subsidy. It was asking the commission to fund a one-time pilot program, to see if the concept worked.

And if the program had worked, it would have had the potential to launch a revolutionary new chapter in public transit. Middle school and high school students in dense, urban populations could have a sensible, easy way to get to class. As they grew into adults, their familiarity with the public transit system would certainly have led them to use the system more often, perhaps eventually generating more money in future fares than the amount they took out of the system as young people.

The free Muni plan had real promise, but at least for the foreseeable future, we will never know what it could have accomplished.

The MTC’s North Bay and East Bay commissioners were right to be concerned about preferential treatment for San Francisco. And no one doubts that if times weren’t so tough, officials would have been happy to fund the program. Still, the MTC suffered a failure of imagination on Wednesday night. This program could have transformed the lives of 40,000 impoverished youths, who often spend hours trying to commute to schools far away from their homes. If it had succeeded, it could have served as a model for other places around the country.

Someday, perhaps some bold leaders will take a chance on this interesting and imaginative project.

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