Plans to expand free access to Muni to all youth regardless of income have been put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic and budget cuts. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Free Muni for Youth program expansion halted by SFMTA budget crisis

Low- and moderate-income kids can still travel for free

The expansion of the Free Muni for Youth program to all of San Francisco’s children and young adults has been put on hold, a casualty of the budget crisis now faced by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

SFMTA’s Board of Directors approved a revised budget for fiscal years 2020-21 and 2021-22 Tuesday in response to the continued plunge in ridership since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and an estimated $568 million revenue loss projected over the next four years.

California’s recent surge in cases suggests the financial devastation from the pandemic is far from over. The agency, which thought at the beginning of this two-year budget cycle it would be exploring innovative ways to expand transit access and improve service, is instead now trying to identify the least damaging cuts it can make with severely reduced resources.

“It’s particularly difficult that kids won’t get free Muni as originally promised. Free Muni for all youth can make Muni more viable for families; it can encourage transit-riding earlier in life, reducing the demand for cars; and it can interrupt destructive cycles around fare evasion, enforcement, fines, and profiling for lower income youth and people of color,” Cat Carter, spokesperson for SF Transit Riders, said in an email.

Currently, children ages 5 to 18 who live in low- to moderate-income households can access all Muni services for free while using a Clipper card. They must apply for the program, and anyone whose gross family annual income is at or below 100 percent of the Bay Area median is eligible.

Low- and moderate-income youth’s access will remain unchanged.

However, the planned expansion would have provided free access to Muni services for all children and young adults, regardless of household income. It was passed in April as part of the original two-year budget cycle, with the understanding that the budgets themselves would be subject to change depending on how long the shelter-in-place orders and public health threat persisted.

Staff estimate it would cost about $2 million to finance the initiative, with most of the funds coming from Muni fare increases on riders who use the electronic Clipper card. Those riders are believed to be more financially well-off.

Single rides paid for with Clipper cards would have risen from $2.50 per ride to $2.80 in November and $2.90 in mid-2021. Adult monthly passes that include San Francisco BART rides would have risen from $98 to $103 later this year, and $106 in mid-2021. Adult monthly passes without BART access would’ve gone up from $81 to $86 later this year, to $88 in mid-2021.

However, the proposed fare increases set off months of tension between the SFMTA’s Board of Directors and the Board of Supervisors, which had previously passed a resolution 10-1 calling on the transit agency not to move forward with them.

After a contentious back-and-forth, which included a vote by the supervisors to reject Mayor London Breed’s nominee for re-appointment to the SFMTA board, the two entities ultimately landed on a deal not to raise prices over the next two years in exchange for halting a charter amendment process that would have granted the Board of Supervisors authority over fare setting.

Coupled with grave declines in ridership, the agreement to not raise prices gutted an already hollowed-out revenue stream.

Director Amanda Eaken on Tuesday expressed frustration at the program’s removal from the budget, describing it as “heartbreaking.” She encouraged the board to brainstorm pricing solutions that would require those who can pay higher fares to do so, while providing free or lower cost rates to individuals who can’t bear a higher cost burden.

Eaken also posed a question about the role of fare enforcement officials, and whether the money used to pay for that service could perhaps be better used to fund the expansion of programs like the Free Muni for Youth.

The board voted 4-0 to approve the revised budget, with the understanding that staff would be returning regularly with updates and any proposed changes.

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