In July, when the Municipal Transportation Commission (MTC) narrowly defeated a proposal to fund a pilot project that would allow 40,000 low-income youth to ride Muni for free, the project’s future looked dim.
But it was resurrected on Wednesday, when the MTC board unanimously voted to use $15 million in federal funds to increase the efficiency and ridership of local transit. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which oversees Muni, will receive $6.7 million of the funds, which it can use for the free Muni project.
The SFMTA approved the $9 million free Muni project in April of this year, contingent on the receipt of $4 million in funding from the MTC.
However, hurdles remain before the 22-month pilot project can go forward.
Unlike the funding voted down by the MTC in July, which would have been restricted to low-income programs, the new federal Transit Performance Initiative (TPI) funds can be used by the SFMTA for a variety of purposes.
In a letter addressed to SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin and Board Chairman Tom Nolan, Supervisors Scott Wiener, Mark Farrell and Carmen Chu requested that the new funds be considered for other purposes as well.
Wiener, who is also an MTC commissioner, voted for the federal funds on Wednesday, saying that they can be used to improve a range of Muni-related services.
SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose said that a new proposal will have to be drafted and approved by the agency’s board before the free Muni project can go forward. “The proposal will be informed by the upcoming supervisor hearing and the result of Prop. 30, which could negatively affect our budget,” said Rose.
Other MTC commissioners who voted in favor of the funds stressed that they will be used to increase transit ridership, as outlined in TPI policy.
“Our vision from the beginning of this campaign has always been to encourage a new generation of transit riders who will be invested in Muni for years to come,” said Supervisor David Campos, a longtime proponent of the program who led Wednesday’s vote at the MTC.
Campos and six of his City Hall colleagues wrote a letter to the SFMTA board and Reiskin after Wednesday’s vote, urging the agency to implement the free Muni project by the new year.
Paul Monge-Rodriguez, legislative affairs officer for the San Francisco Youth Commission, believes that the free Muni project will encourage a new generation of transit riders while easing the fiscal burden of public transportation for low-income families.
“It is an investment that in the long run will allow many of our youth to attend school, to commute to work and to become more involved in the community in a lasting way. These are things that people who are not dependent on local transit systems often take for granted,” said Monge-Rodriguez.
Nicholas Persky, a 17-year-old high school student and vice-chair of the Youth Commission, is optimistic that the SFMTA will draft a proposal that will make the program a reality. “Having Muni free for low-income youth would help take away the financial burden of Muni fast passes to our families that often struggle to afford them on a monthly basis,” Persky said.
“We are excited about today’s victory,” said Jaron Browne, communications director for POWER, a grass-roots community organization that has advocated in favor of the free Muni project for the last two years.
“We expect our young people to be taking Muni every day, and we hope this will lift the fear in their lives of not having the fare. This is especially true in the Mission; we have a high concentration of young people who would benefit from this,” said Browne.
Citing the 120 percent increase in the cost of Muni’s youth fast pass since 2009 and the reduction of school bus services by half, Browne said he hopes the SFMTA will take advantage of the new funds by implementing the free Muni project early next year.
“By advocating for this money, not only are we helping youth to get to school, but we are also supporting the improvement of the entire transit system,” said Angelina Yu, a community organizer with the Chinatown Community Development Center. “Today we are seeing the impact our communities can have on local as well as regional priorities,” Yu said after the MTC vote.
The Free Muni for Youth Coalition, a collection of concerned youth, parents and community organizations in San Francisco, secured over $4.9 million in funding for the project over the last two years. The coalition has also gained formal support from members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the Board of Education, Mayor Ed Lee, and the MTA board.