Free Muni youth plan could be revived with new funding from MTC

Gil Riego Jr./Special to the S.F. ExaminerIn transit: Everett Middle School pupils Duc Bui

A plan to provide free Muni for low-income youths in San Francisco — which looked perilously close to extinction earlier this year — has received new life, with $6.7 million in funding now potentially available for the program.

When the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which administers federal and regional transit funds, declined to approve $4 million for a 22-month pilot program in July, the endeavor looked dead in the water.

The board of directors of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which oversees Muni, had approved the plan under the condition that it would receive funding from the MTC.

But now there might be new funds available — and a new direction at the MTC. The agency will vote later this month on whether to allocate $15 million in federal funds for initiatives that increase productivity and introduce new riders to local transit systems. Of that money, the SFMTA is slated to receive $6.7 million.

At the request of MTC Commissioner Steve Kinsey, those funds are specifically eligible for Muni’s free youth program.

Kinsey’s support for the plan is an about-face from July, when his vote against the program proved to be the margin in an 8-7 decision that halted the funds.

“We’ve spoke with Commissioner Kinsey and he’s told us that he felt like he made an error in voting against the plan,” said Jaron Browne, an organizer at POWER, a grass-roots organization leading the free Muni effort. “Now he’s taking actions to correct that.”

With the funds specifically available for the program, it could be up and running by early next year, said Supervisor David Campos, a staunch advocate for the plan who also is an MTC commissioner.

However, SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose said the agency won’t make any decisions on how to spend the $6.7 million until the MTC votes on the matter Oct. 24. The funding could be allocated for other needs.

SFMTA board Chairman Tom Nolan said he would have to get a staff report before deciding whether it’s a good idea to use the funds for the free Muni plan.

“When it comes to issues like this, I always say the same thing —‘This as opposed to what?’” Nolan said. “I think the free Muni program is an admirable idea, but I’m nervous that we could be taking away money from something else that really needs funding.”

Browne said her organization hopes to meet with both SFMTA chief Ed Reiskin and Mayor Ed Lee to tout the importance of using the new funds for the free Muni program.

“These funds are focused on increasing ridership,” Browne said. “If they’re used for a free Muni youth program, we will be creating an entire generation of dedicated transit passengers.”

The pilot program approved by the SFMTA in April would provide free rides to 40,000 low-income youth passengers. The SFMTA is slated to contribute $4.4 million to the $9 million plan.

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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