After a year of tireless campaigning by local supporters, the plan to provide free Muni passes for some or all of The City’s youths is in danger of being derailed by the regional body expected to fund the program.
The seven directors for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni, have indicated they are prepared to approve free passes for at least low-income youths, but only if $5 million in one-time funding is provided by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area’s lead transit planning agency.
However, several members of the MTC say they are skeptical about using regional funds to pay for a 22-month pilot project that would just benefit San Francisco.
“We’re trying a similar program here, but we’re funding it all locally,” said MTC Commissioner Scott Haggerty, who represents Alameda County. “There are only so much regional dollars available, so I can’t say I’m too excited about using those funds for a program that will only benefit San Francisco.”
Commissioner Bill Dodd of Napa County echoed his reservations.
“There is a limited amount of money, and when that runs out we’ll look like the bad guys,” Dodd said. “And that’s on top of concerns I have about funding a program that will give San Francisco kids a free ride, but make kids in Oakland and San Jose pay.”
MTC Chairwoman Adrienne Tissier, from San Mateo County, did not say whether she would support the plan, but she conceded that the region already has a hard time funding existing transit programs.
Haggerty also noted that several other ongoing San Francisco projects — such as the Doyle Drive rebuild and Central Subway — are eating up a large chunk of the region’s funds.
“I can hear a giant sucking sound coming out of San Francisco,” Haggerty said.
San Francisco Supervisor David Campos has organized the advocacy efforts to provide the free Muni passes. Campos, who represents The City on the MTC, said he is confident and hopeful that funding will be approved.
“The free Muni youth program would improve access to transit for thousands of passengers, and that’s consistent with the MTC’s principles,” Campos said.
Campos said approval of the funding became less likely when Muni’s board of directors delayed approval of the free fares at its April 3 meeting. Campos cannot bring the proposal to the MTC until Muni signs off on it.
But until then, backers will continue to advocate for the program.
“Our goal all along has been to bring a united San Francisco front to the MTC,” said Jaron Browne, an organizer for POWER, a group backing the program. “And we think we’ve done that.”
$16M: Projected cost of 22-month pilot program to provide free Muni for all youths
$9.4M: Projected cost of pilot program only covering low-income youths
$5M: MTC funding sought for either plan
$6.4M: Annual funding the SFMTA would have to provide for free Muni for all
The notion of providing free Muni rides for all minors must surmount local budgetary hurdles in addition to regional challenges.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni, is counting on a $5 million one-time subsidy from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to help it finance free transit passes for low-income youths. But after steady prodding by youth advocates and grass-roots organizations, some members of the SFMTA board of directors want to extend the program to all youths.
If the board votes April 17 to do that, the SFMTA would have to find an additional $6.4 million for the program. Agency chief Ed Reiskin said most of that money would have to come from so-called state Lifeline funds designated for transit improvement projects in low-income areas.
Thus, free Muni for all minors could result in shelving plans to upgrade service along the Bayshore Express bus line, Reiskin said. Also, operating improvements planned for the 108-Treasure Island and 29-Sunset lines could be delayed.
Supervisor David Campos, who backs full free youth boardings, said he has received repeated assurances from SFMTA officials that other programs would not suffer as a result of the free passes.
But Reiskin belied that claim.
“There are a lot of eligible uses for the Lifeline funds, many of which we have planned,” Reiskin said. “There will be trade-offs.”
— Will Reisman