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S.F. agency OKs free Muni for low-income kids

Submitted by News Desk on Wed, 04/25/2012 - 11:10am
Low-income youths could soon ride San Francisco's Muni for free, while drivers who park in the city on Sundays might have to pay up.

Those controversial proposals were approved Tuesday by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's Board of Directors, which unanimously passed the budget for Muni, parking, traffic and taxis over the next two years.

Yet for those programs to become reality, the budget still has to clear several hurdles that include gaining the Board of Supervisors' approval.

Overall, the budget calls for spending $821 million in the new fiscal year that begins July 1, and $840.5 million the following year. That plan is projected to close deficits of $19.6 million and $33.6 million, respectively.

The 7-0 vote to start a pilot program that lets disadvantaged youths ride Muni for free makes San Francisco one of a few major transit systems nationwide with similar policies.

It was a win, albeit a scaled-back one, for a well-organized group of students, parents and community activists who wanted Muni to be free for all youths ages 5 to 17. Children under age 5 already ride for free.

The program, which would run from Aug. 1 to May 31, 2014, will cost an estimated $9.4 million. For it to be implemented, however, San Francisco's regional transportation partners first must agree to help pay for it.

"I think that it's not exactly what we wanted, but we did win something very big at the same time," said Manuela Esteva, 42, a Mission District resident who says sending her two daughters to school costs $40 in monthly Muni fares.

During the Muni board's meeting in a packed City Hall chamber, proponents, who also included progressive members of the Board of Supervisors and the city's Board of Education, argued the program would equalize ridership and make the city more family-friendly.

But, opponents argued, the financially struggling agency should instead focus on maintaining buses and meeting service standards.

Up to $5 million for the program could come from the regional funding and planning agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, pending its approval.

"I believe the resources may well be there for providing free Muni for low-income youth," said board Chairman Tom Nolan. "I'm not nearly as convinced the case is as compelling for middle-class and upper-class kids."

The proposal to let all youths ride for free would have cost the city $16 million in lost fare revenue and added costs of Clipper cards, according to the agency's staff. It also would have resulted in nearly $4 million in cuts to bus maintenance.

Funding aside, what exactly it means to be "low income" still needs to be defined. A working definition sets the bar at children who qualify for free or reduced school lunches, but some residents argue that price point is too low.

To help pay for the program, the board approved another controversial proposal: to charge for parking at meters on Sundays. Religious leaders say it will discourage churchgoers from attending services.

Calvin Jones Jr., a pastor at Providence Baptist Church in Bayview-Hunters Point, called the plan "too much of a hustle."

But board Director Joel Ramos said, "At this point, we're in a desperate situation and we have to do what we have to do."

While the idea of charging for Sunday parking has been considered for several years, Mayor Ed Lee, unlike his predecessor, backs the change.

The MTA budget also calls for implementing all-door boarding by July 1, adding more than 500 parking meters, raising the cost of parking tickets another $5 and spending more than $447 million from the capital budget to continue building the Muni's T-Third line as part of the Central Subway.

Stephanie M. Lee is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Twitter: @stephaniemlee.