Free Muni youth program could finally take off

S.F. Examiner File PhotoBig decision: The Board of Supervisors will have the opportunity today to approve a $1.6 million plan to offer free Muni passes to low-income youths as part of a pilot program.

An odyssey that began more than a year ago could finally be resolved today, when a funding plan could be approved to provide free transit to low-income youths in The City.

In April, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s board of directors, which governs policy for Muni, approved a 22-month pilot project that would give free rides to about 40,000 low-income youths. However, that vote was contingent upon receiving $4 million from regional transit planners the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. In July, the MTC rejected the request.

Now, a new grant worth $6.7 million has surfaced, and Transportation Agency chief Ed Reiskin has recommended that $1.6 million of it be used for the free Muni plan. The program would finally be fully funded, although the pilot would change from 22 months to 16.

“Tuesday’s vote and hopeful approval of the funding allocation will be a huge validation for San Francisco’s low-income youth and their families,” said Jaron Browne, a community planner at POWER, an organization instrumental in backing the program. “This would never have happened if young people and their parents didn’t stay committed.”

The issue of funding the plan has been divisive, since the Transportation Agency could use all $6.7 million to shore up its aging vehicles and infrastructure. Muni’s on-time performance has hit record lows in recent months, due in large part to faulty vehicles and operator shortages.

“I think funding the free Muni plan is a completely misplaced priority,” Supervisor Sean Elsbernd said “I’m thoroughly disappointed with Ed Reiskin and the SFMTA board.”

Elsbernd said it’s ironic that the agency wants to spend this money on a pilot program while it also plans to ask supervisors to approve increased fees on building development, which would provide the agency with extra funds.

If the youth allocation is approved, the program would be ready by March.

The remaining $5.1 million of the grant would go toward light-rail vehicle rehabilitation.

“The needs of our transit system are many, and this is an opportunity to address such needs by improving service and providing more transit options for our youth,” agency spokesman Paul Rose said.

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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