Big Ferry Subsidies for Tech Firms Before Free Muni for Low-Income Youth?

Free Muni for low-income youth is just within reach, which would be the culmination of a hard-fought advocacy campaign that urged the SF Municipal Transportation Agency and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to set aside a total of $9.4 million to improve transit access for students in need.

A coalition of advocates ##http://sf.streetsblog.org/2011/09/20/broad-coalition-calls-on-sfmta-to-provide-free-muni-youth-passes/##calls for free Muni passes for youth## last year. Photo: Bryan Goebel

However, campaign organizers are remarking on the stark contrast between their uphill battle and the MTC’s quick decision to fund a new, far less cost-effective ferry from Alameda to South San Francisco to serve a burgeoning tech cluster. While the free passes are probably not in jeopardy, the full-speed-ahead ferry subsidies speak volumes about the priorities of the region’s transportation agencies.

Organizers for the low-income youth campaign Leah LaCroix and Bahar Ostadan pointed out in an op-ed in the Chronicle this week that there’s been much less debate and scrutiny surrounding the MTC’s recently-approved $18.6 million subsidy for the new Alameda-South City ferry, which on a per-ride basis will cost almost ten times as much as Muni’s low-income youth program, going by the writers’ calculations — $26.60 per ride (not including startup costs) compared to $2.86 per ride.

It’s normal for transit to rely on subsidies, and ferries are a great way to move people across the bay. But as Phil Matier and Andrew Ross recently wrote in their Chronicle column, the tax support needed for the South City line is off the charts compared to two existing ferry lines to SF, even when projected out for two decades.

The new South SF ferry opened in June. Photo: ##http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/matier-ross/article/South-San-Francisco-ferry-loaded-with-subsidies-3659513.php#photo-3112903##Lea Suzuki/SF Chronicle##

Meanwhile, the SFMTA’s low-income youth pilot needs just $5 million in regional transportation funds from the MTC to move forward. The MTC seems to be on the verge of selecting one of three options to fund it, along with similar programs for other transit agencies who suddenly said they wanted to help their own low-income riders.

Yesterday, due to low member attendance, an MTC committee passed the vote on to the agency’s full board without recommending a choice. The board vote, scheduled for July 25, could be the final victory needed to launch Muni’s program.

POWER organizers told the MTC committee yesterday that they support either of two funding proposals, both of which would provide $4 million of the $5 million needed for Muni’s pilot in time for the next school year in the fall. (It’s unclear where the last $1 million would come from.)

All three options would divvy up $8 million differently. The first option would provide $4 million for Muni’s program and set the rest aside for future free-pass pilot programs at other transit agencies. Under the second option, that set-aside would be distributed immediately for pilots to Alameda-Contra Costa Transit and the Valley Transportation Authority. The third option, which is not supported by advocates, would distribute the $8 million for all transit agencies in the Bay Area to provide reduced fare programs for low-income youth.

For more on the proposals, check out this presentation [PDF] on yesterday’s MTC committee agenda.

  • mikesonn

    See #HashtagExpress and Twitter tax break.

  • Tony

    The same could be said for MTC playing favorites when funding suburban (BART) versus inner city (AC Transit) service.

    BTW Aaron: AC Transit = Alameda Contra-Costa Transit

  • Ah yes, woops! Fixed, thanks.

  • Joel

    What if they used that money for… oh I don’t know – actually improving transit reliability?

    Even if that money /had/ to be spent low-income youth subsidies, I’m sure it could be more efficiently used by limiting the rides to school hours use, so that more students could benefit from the subsidy.

  • Bradforio

    I’d rather see the subsidies and end up with service that the general public is allowed to use as opposed to each company running it’s own bus service through the city and up and down the peninsula every day, a la Facebook and Google.  

  •  Bradforio – as it stands right now, if the Google buses and Apple buses and Facebook buses went away, Caltrain would not be able to handle the additional passenger load – the trains are straining under the current load. The infrastructure investment needed to increase capacity during peak loads is many many millions. It’s coming, but it will be a long time off.

  • Paul

    It is disappointing that a transit-savvy blog would repeat this apples-to-oranges comparison.

    The $47-per-ride ferry subsidy figure includes the cost of ferry boats and a ferry terminal in South San Francisco, whereas the $2.86-per-ride Muni youth fare subsidy includes only operating costs.

    Smart people would go even further, adjusting the operating subsidies for miles traveled. The ferry trip covers more than 10 miles (over water), whereas a youth riding Muni travels perhaps two or three miles.

    Really smart people, who care about the viability of public transit, would also consider modal shift. Most any trip that a youth might make on Muni if her fare were free could be made more efficiently (for the individual and for the system) by bicycle. The Alameda – South San Francisco ferry, on the other hand, is one of only a handful of public transportation routes in the United States that is always faster than its logical alternative — driving.

    The social justice angle is also problematic. The MTC presentation is regional in scope. It is an outgrowth of work that was done years ago on the concept of “life line” transit service. Young people in San Francisco have alternatives such as walking and biking; distances are small and the physical environment already includes pedestrian and bicycle improvements. Young people in the Bay Area’s suburban cities face longer distances and more limited physical accommodations. Arguably, a youth transit fare subsidy program should prioritize the suburbs.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    It is disappointing that a transit-savvy blog would repeat this apples-to-oranges comparison.

    Steve Heminger, is that you?

    he $47-per-ride ferry subsidy figure includes the cost of ferry boats and a ferry terminal in South San Francisco,

    Damn straight!  Because capital grows on trees.  And interest costs are zero.  And opportunity costs are zero.  And because whenever Steve Heminger wishes to reward some particular contractor, he can just raid the State Bridge toll revenues for however much capital he likes!  Woo hoo!

    Smart people would go even further, adjusting the operating subsidies for miles traveled.

    Yes, because homeowners in Livermore are much more valuable as human beings than renting school children in Oakland.  Clearly.  As all of MTC’s policies demonstrate.

    The social justice angle is also problematic. The MTC presentation is regional in scope

    BART to Warm Sprints.
    BART to the SJ Flea Market.
    Oakland Airport Connector.
    BART to Millbrae.
    High Speed Rail to Los Banos.
    VTA Light Rail.
    Caldecott Tunnel.
    TransLink/Clippper Unlimited Clusterfuck(tm)
    Bay Bridge East Span.
    New MTC Headquarters.

    You’re doing a heckuva job there, Stevie!

  • voltairesmistress

    I think transit for youth, seniors, and the disabled in San Francisco is already heavily subsidized and pretty cheap to its consumers.  I agree with Paul above, that youth especially could supplement their already inexpensive transit fares by bicycling (and walking) in ways senior and disabled persons cannot as easily.  So no, I am not for free youth passes for all youth all the time.  And I think subsidizing transit for people traveling to work makes a lot of sense — encouraging smart economic growth and helping working people in the Bay Area pay for their children’s use of already subsidized transit.  If that makes me a mean and conservative person in others eyes, so be it.

  • Anonymous

    The answer to our problems is sending 12 year olds to ride to School from the Mission to the Sunset. I see