Free Muni for youth one step closer to reality following supervisors’ vote

S.F. Examiner File PhotoSplit decision: Supervisors were split on whether Muni funds should be used for youth passes or system upgrades.

Making Muni free for low-income San Francisco youths could become a reality as soon as February after the Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday in favor of a proposed pilot program.

Although the final decision lies with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the supervisors’ 7-4 approval of a resolution backing the program sent the transit directors a strong message of support before their scheduled Dec. 4 vote. Mayor Ed Lee also backs the program.

The Transportation Agency’s board will vote on whether to use a portion of $6.7 million in recently awarded regional transit dollars to allow low-income youths to ride Muni for free. The funds would pay for a five-month pilot. The expectation is that an additional $1.8 million would later be allocated to extend the pilot for another seven months.

Supervisor Scott Wiener failed in his effort to derail the pilot program. Wiener argued, along with supervisors Carmen Chu, Sean Elsbernd and Mark Farrell, that all of the funding should go toward Muni service, which has suffered through decades of neglect.

Youth advocacy groups such as POWER; The City’s Youth Commission; and Coleman Advocates for Children, Youth and their Families worked tirelessly for more than a year to advocate for such a program.

Initially the hope was to make Muni free for all youths, but in April the agency’s board of directors voted to support a program for only low-income youths, with the caveat that additional funding be secured.

Backers of the program say it makes sense since youth ridership appears to have fallen off following an increase in the cost of a Muni Fast Pass from $10 to $22 per month. The agency sold 18,410 youth passes in October 2010 but just 11,502 last month. A monthly Fast Pass for adults is $64.

Supervisor David Campos, who has long promoted free Muni for all youths, said Wiener was presenting a false choice between the two needs. “You can maintain the system and still provide accessibility to low-income families and kids in this city,” Campos said.

But Elsbernd said when it comes to budgeting, free Muni should not be the priority.

“The priority is making sure that the youth who need to take the bus to school actually have a bus that is on time and clean and can get there,” Elsbernd said. He added that he was “disappointed” the agency would approve the program, calling it irresponsible.

“As they go forward to the electorate saying, ‘We want to raise parking meters, we want to raise more taxes,’ and this program is on the books?” Elsbernd said. “Good luck.”

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

Bay Area NewsBoard of SupervisorsGovernment & PoliticsLocalPoliticssean elsbernd

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