Lawmakers question use of operating funds for free Muni youth program

Muni is poised to receive $6.7 million that could fund a free youth fare program, but some lawmakers believe the struggling transit agency should use the funds more productively.

Last April, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s board approved a proposed 22-month pilot project to provide free service for about 40,000 low-income San Francisco youths at a cost of $9 million. Their vote was contingent upon receiving $4 million in regional funds from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area’s lead transit financing agency. Then the MTC rejected the funding, leaving the plan in doubt.

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A potential new source of funding will be considered Wednesday by the MTC, including $6.7 million in federal transit performance initiative (TPI) funds. But unlike the funding rejected in July, which could only support a narrow range of low-income-based programs, the new funds are eligible to finance a wide array of vital agency functions. The agency has struggled with service recently, as a shortage of operators and faulty equipment have resulted in missed transit runs and a drop in on-time performance rates.

With Muni’s recent struggles in mind, San Francisco supervisors Scott Wiener, Mark Farrell and Carmen Chu have asked the SFMTA to hold a public hearing to determine the best use of the $6.7 million. The trio, in a letter written to SFMTA transportation chief Ed Reiskin and Chairman Tom Nolan, cited Muni’s extreme need for system enhancements as reasons to consider investing the new money for other purposes.

“Given the flexibility of the TPI money and the importance of the issues to be discussed at this hearing, we request that the SFMTA not make any decisions about how to spend the TPI money until the hearing is held,” the supervisors wrote.

Youth advocates want the MTC to approve the funds and for Muni to have the free fare plan in place by Jan. 1, said Jane Martin of POWER, a grass-roots organization that supports the proposal. Such supporters note that the cost of a monthly Muni youth pass has increased from $10 to $22 since 2009 — at the same time that school bus service has been cut.

“The free Muni youth proposal has a huge amount of support in San Francisco,” Martin said. “It’s time to get this up and running, because families in this city are really struggling to make ends meet right now.”

Agency spokesman Paul Rose said Muni has not yet decided how to spend the $6.7 million. It is waiting for the MTC to take action and also for the results of the vote on Prop. 30, a state ballot measure designed to raise $6 billion. Then the agency will make a recommendation, which would have to be approved by its directors, Rose said.

Director Cheryl Brinkman said she would wait for a staff recommendation before deciding whether to support the use of funds for a free Muni youth program.

“Although I do support free Muni for low-income youth, we will need to see the full picture,” Brinkman said. “It would be fantastic to have enough funding to make needed improvements to the system that will benefit all riders, and fund free Muni for youth.”

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