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Revised SFMTA budget ditches plan to expand Free Muni for Youth program

San Francisco transit officials have halted plans to extend its Free Muni for Youth program to all city youth due a budget crisis at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Directors on the SFMTA board Tuesday approved a revised $1.2 billion budget for fiscal years 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 that leaves out expansion of the free Muni program for youth aged 5 through 18 whose family incomes are higher than the current program’s income threshold.

Jonathan Rewers, a senior budget analyst for the SFMTA, said the agency is expected to receive less revenue across the board, including from transit fares, than projected at the board’s April meeting when the initial budget was approved.

The agency is projecting a $568 million loss in revenue over the next four years.

The SFMTA will continue to support its current free Muni program for low- and middle-income riders between the ages of 5 and 18 in its two-year budget. The program was established in 2012 and gives youth a free Muni pass on a Clipper card if their households report annual income at or below 100 percent of the Bay Area median income level.

Expressing disappointment that the agency could not identify funding to support the program expansion, Director Amanda Eaken said:

“I know we’re taking heartbreaking cuts but I think that one’s especially unfortunate, and just want to emphasize, I think that was a decision that was so in line with our values.”

Lisa Padilla/Flickr Plans to extend the Free Muni for Youth program to all youth, regardless of income level, have been tabled due to projected revenue loss in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. (Lisa Padilla/Flickr)

Rewers said the agency estimated that extending free Muni to upper-income youth would have cost approximately $2 million. The agency had expected to use funds from planned Muni fare increases to cover revenue loss expected as result of the program’s expansion.

But in a compromise between the Board of Supervisors and transit officials last month, the agency agreed not to increase fares and instead work with the board and the Mayor’s Office to identify funding solutions — plans have yet to be presented since last month’s announcement.

The raising of Muni fares during a pandemic, especially with many residents unemployed due to shuttered businesses, was not fair, many supervisors said. They passed a resolution 10-1 urging the SFMTA board to forego the increases, but the board unanimously approved the fare hikes in April.

Before the compromise was made, Supervisor Aaron Peskin introduced a charter amendment planned for the November ballot that would have taken legislative power from the SFMTA board to make fare decisions.

Supervisors also rejected Mayor London’s Breed re-appointment of Director Cristina Rubke.

Though the agency’s books are balanced over the next two fiscal years, thanks in part to a federal injection of $197 million from the CARES Act and a hiring freeze, there still remains a structural projected deficit of $97 million for the 2022-2023 fiscal year and a projected deficit of $84 million in the 2023-2024 fiscal year.

The agency is nearly depleting its fund balance, also known as its rainy fund, to close gaps in the revised budget.

SFMTA’s Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin said the agency only plans to return 70 percent of Muni service hours by early next year:

“There are 40 bus lines we have no path to restore service to in this budget absent new outside revenue sources.”

The agency is still funding a number of programs and staffing positions tied to the Central Subway; a new Race, Equity and Inclusion Office; Muni service restoration; and hiring of more parking control officers to deal with increased traffic congestion.

It is still unknown if and when buses and trains can reach pre-pandemic rider capacity — higher fare revenue is tied to running high-capacity transit vehicles.  

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