Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Push to make public transport free for kids under 19 years

San Francisco -- A growing number of city leaders want to make riding Muni (San Francisco public transport) free for kids 18 and under, but doing so would cost $6 to $13 million annually.

Supervisor David Campos said the cost should be viewed as an important investment.

"It's one critical step we can take to improve the quality of life for all families in the city, and to support and encourage a new generation of transit riders for our future," said Campos. He introduced a resolution Tuesday that has the backing of the majority of the Board of Supervisors and would call on the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to provide a free transit pass for young people.

But that's a tough proposition since the agency, with a $781 million operating budget, is already facing a $23 million deficit.

Muni's youth cash fare is 75 cents, and the monthly youth Fast Pass is $21. Children under 5 already ride for free.

Muni estimates that 36,000, or about 15 percent, of the system's weekday riders are under 18. Included in that estimate are kids who sneak aboard. A 2009 study found that about 10 percent of the passengers in the peak after-school hours between 2 and 4 p.m. didn't pay. Unknown is the age breakdown of the fare cheats.

Cable cars would be excluded from the proposed free-Muni program.

The idea of free transit for youths is not new - New York City and Portland for example, have variations of such a program. And over the years, the idea of free Muni has been floated.

But proponents say the need in San Francisco is particularly acute now, given that Muni has more than doubled the cost of the youth Fast Pass over the past two years and the San Francisco Unified School District is cutting its school bus program by 43 percent over the next two years.

Gabriella Ruiz said her family, who lives on a fixed income in the Bayview, feels the financial pinch and would welcome the prospect of free transportation.

Ruiz, a 17-year-old freshman at San Francisco State University, and her younger sister who attends high school, pay cash to ride Muni and every day they scrounge to come up with the money rather than shell out the combined $42 at the beginning of the month to buy the more thrifty passes. When money is short, she said she sometimes boards the bus using an expired transfer. "It would be good if Muni was free and we wouldn't have to worry," she said.

Ruiz was one of several dozen people, among them city supervisors, community activists, public schools superintendent Carlos Garcia and Joel Ramos, who serves on the transportation agency's governing board, who rallied on the steps of City Hall Tuesday in support of the idea.

Muni chief Ed Reiskin offered no promises, but said his agency is "very open to discussion."

Money will be the key sticking point.

Muni set aside just $1.4 million this fiscal year to provide free passes for a limited number of eligible low-income students. Campos and other proponents hope a three-year trial could be funded by sources that include the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, the San Francisco Unified School District, the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission and even private donors.

Muni could lose $6.4 million to $7 million in revenue if youths rode free, according to a report issued Tuesday by Board of Supervisors budget analyst Harvey Rose.

On top of that, Muni officials estimate that the lure of free service would boost the number of young riders by 10,980 a day, which would require the agency to provide more service and could lead to more graffiti that needs to be cleaned up. Those costs would add another $6 million or more to the tab, although the budget analyst questions whether Muni actually would add more service to handle the additional riders, given the agency's past handling of capacity issues.

The analyst outlines several potential benefits, the costs of which are hard to calculate Among them: Enabling youth to get to jobs at more distant neighborhoods, reducing the need to use private automobiles, which cause congestion and pollution, and cutting truancy to the extent that students miss school because they don't have bus fare.

E-mail Rachel Gordon at

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