The much-debated plan to let low-income kids in San Francisco hop aboard Muni for free apparently died Wednesday as the Metropolitan Transportation Commission narrowly voted against giving the plan $4 million in regional transportation funds.
The commission voted 8-7 against a motion to fund the 22-month free Muni plan, give $1 million to a two-year reduced- fare plan for low-income adults in Santa Clara County, and contribute $500,000 to an Alameda County student pass plan with a possible $2.5 million later. The vote split along regional lines with commissioners from San Francisco, the Peninsula and the South Bay favoring the program and East Bay and North Bay representatives opposed.
The MTC vote leaves Muni's $9.4 million plan, which was to start on Aug. 1, $5 million short. Municipal Transportation Agency officials declined to declare the free-fare program dead, but have said repeatedly that they can't afford to contribute any extra money.
"We're disappointed in the outcome," said Paul Rose, an MTA spokesman. "We're going to have to regroup and go back to our board and see where we are without funding from the region."
After the vote, about 30 to 40 students who had lobbied for the free-fare plan for several months chanted "Shame on you" at commissioners, and one stood on a chair, grabbed a megaphone and railed about the unfairness of the commission's funding priorities. Others quietly shuffled out of the room, dejected.
"I feel like my heart has been shattered in pieces," said Tina Sataraka, 17, as tears streamed down her face. "They're letting people in low-income communities down. It's like they don't care about us. It's like they're putting our youth under the buses."
Sataraka, who will be a senior at Balboa High School, has two sisters and a single mother, and lives in Hunters Point. Sometimes money is so tight that the kids have to scrounge through the couch cushions for enough change to pay the 75-cent fare to get to school, she said. When they can't find enough, they have to decide whether to drop what they have in the fare box and ride without a transfer, risking a $100 fine.
"Most kids in San Francisco don't go to their neighborhood schools," she said before the meeting. "We have to take the bus."
Sataraka was among dozens of speakers, mostly high school students, who urged the commission to fund the free-fare program, arguing that it was a small investment that would benefit tens of thousands of youth in San Francisco, and could be used as a test program to build a Bay Area-wide program.
The MTA board, despite misgivings but under pressure from the Board of Supervisors, approved the free Muni plan in April, contingent on receiving up to $5 million from the commission. But commissioners, especially from the East Bay, were critical, questioning why San Francisco youth should be singled out for free transit. Muni's request was soon followed by proposals from Santa Clara and Alameda counties.
Commissioners poked at the free Muni proposal for three months, raising questions about fairness and funding, particularly the prospect of long-term support for a regional program, and putting off a decision three times.
On Wednesday, before a crowd of about 150, the commission considered three options:
-- Giving Muni $4 million and setting aside another $4 million for future experimental low-income fare programs.
-- Funding the Muni, Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and Alameda Transportation Commission programs for a total of $8 million. This was the option ultimately voted on and rejected.
-- Creating a plan for a future regional reduced-fare program for low-income youth but not funding any current programs.
Free Muni supporters argued for the first or second options. Supervisor David Campos, the program's biggest backer, argued that it was "the most democratic" and could produce a model for the region.
But some commissioners said they couldn't support a program that wasn't regional.
"We should be looking at how to get free transit for all children under 18," said Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty. "We're just not ready yet."
Commissioners Adrienne Tissier, Campos, Dave Cortese, Anne Halsted, Sam Liccardo, Kevin Mullin and Scott Wiener voted for the free-fare plan with Amy Rein Worth, Bill Dodd, Federal Glover, Mark Green, Haggerty, Steve Kinsey, Jake Mackenzie and Jim Spering voting against.
Michael Cabanatuan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @ctuan