Free Muni for youths expected to be approved by Board of Supervisors

S.F. Examiner File PhotoBig decision: City supervisors will vote today on whether to support using a Muni windfall on free passes for low-income youths or system upgrades.

The long argument over whether to allow low-income youths to ride Muni for free appears all but over.

Today, the Board of Supervisors is expected to send the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s board of directors a clear message of support for a pilot program to make Muni free for low-income youths.

In April, the transit board approved such a pilot, contingent upon receiving additional funding. The agency was recently awarded $6.7 million from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Yet Supervisor Scott Wiener subsequently introduced a resolution recommending that all the money be invested in Muni’s capital and maintenance needs, a position shared by his more moderate colleagues. But Wiener’s resolution does not appear to have the six board votes for approval today.

Board President David Chiu opposed Wiener’s resolution during the board’s Government Audit and Oversight Committee hearing Monday.

“I have been and will continue to support free Muni for youth,” Chiu said. “It is important to build a ridership with a new generation of San Franciscans.”

As Muni’s on-time performance rate is just 60.8 percent, and it has more than $200 million in annual capital spending needs, Wiener and his supporters say the money would more wisely be spent improving the transit system.

“I don’t see this as the highest and best use of our transit dollars,” Supervisor Sean Elsbernd said. “There are a lot of other higher and better uses of the public dollars than this program.”

Elsbernd also questioned Mayor Ed Lee’s support of the proposal.

“Over the last year we’ve gotten a very ambiguous statement from the mayor,” Elsbernd said.

Lee’s transit policy director, Gillian Gillette, has stated publicly that making Muni free for youths is not the answer to cuts to the San Francisco Unified School District’s school bus program.

But after that hearing, Lee’s spokeswoman expressed a conflicting viewpoint.

“The mayor has supported the concept of free Muni for low-income youth,” Christine Falvey said. “Now that there are funds available, the MTA board needs to make a decision, and the mayor expects them to strike a balance between the critical maintenance needs of the agency and funding a pilot program for free Muni for low-income youth.”

Transportation Agency chief Ed Reiskin said he will recommend that the transit board approve the funding. “I don’t see this as an either-or,” Reiskin said. “We have a multitude of needs. We have needs in our transit fleet. There are needs out in our community.”

Under Reiskin’s proposal, $1.6 million of the $6.7 million would go toward establishing free Muni rides for an estimated 40,000 low-income youths between February and June. The remainder of the money would be allocated to vehicle rehabilitation. Then for the following fiscal year, the agency would allocate an additional $1.8 million to keep the pilot going for another six months.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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