Youth passes or upkeep? Muni diving into debate

S.F. Examiner File PhotoBig question: The SFMTA must decide how to spend $6.7 million in new funding.

S.F. Examiner File PhotoBig question: The SFMTA must decide how to spend $6.7 million in new funding.

The recent delivery of $6.7 million to Muni has the agency pondering a difficult choice — should the funds be used to shore up an aging and decrepit fleet of vehicles, or to provide The City’s youth with unparalleled access to San Francisco’s public transit system?

That debate has split transit advocates and youth activists, and it will be the focus of a hearing today at the Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee.

In April, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s board of directors, which governs Muni, approved a 22-month pilot project to provide free transit rides for The City’s 40,000 low-income youths.

However, that approval was contingent on receiving $4 million from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the region’s lead transit financing agency.

The MTC declined to fund the program in July, but last month the regional body approved $6.7 million in new funding for Muni — money that youth groups say should go toward the free fare plan.

However, Supervisor Scott Wiener has proposed using the funds for maintenance and operations work for the struggling transit agency, citing the chronically poor performance rates of Muni service. Wiener called the hearing scheduled for today.

“The most important part of the hearing is to make sure that the public understands how deep in the hole Muni is,” Wiener said. “And that’s because of its inadequate maintenance, lack of funding to rehab vehicles and lack of available vehicles and operators.”

Critics have hit back at Wiener, calling his ultimatum a false choice between increasing access for youth riders and improving the system.

Jaron Browne, an organizer with activist group POWER, one of the leading backers of the free Muni plan, said the organization supports efforts to improve maintenance and service for the transit agency. Browne proposes that the money available now be used for the free fare plan, and when future funds arise for maintenance projects, POWER would fight to see them delivered to Muni.

While today’s hearing will help crystallize the debate, the ultimate funding decision will come down to the SFMTA and its board of directors. So far, the agency has been noncommittal on how to use the money.

“The needs of our transit system are many and we can use these funds to address the various needs, including improved vehicle maintenance and more options for low-income youth,” agency spokesman Paul Rose said.

On Dec. 4, the agency’a board will vote on how to use the funds. Chairman Tom Nolan said the funding choice facing the board is a difficult one.

“We made a commitment to the free Muni program that was contingent on funding that we now have,” Nolan said.

“But these funds are from a different source, and can be used for different things. That’s made the situation pretty murky.”

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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