Board of Supes Resolution Urges Free Muni Passes for Low-Income Youth

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A growing number of low-income youth who depend on public transit in San Francisco are finding it harder to afford the trip to class, but a resolution introduced by Supervisor David Campos this week could pave the way toward providing free Muni passes for the rest of the school year to thousands of students who are regular Muni riders.

“For many poor families in San Francisco, public transportation is actually the only option,” said Mattias Mormino, the project coordinator at the Single-Room Occupancy (SRO) Families United Collaborative, a community-based organization that partners with the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) to provide transportation for homeless and displaced students. “It’s not like they can choose to leave the car in the garage.”

A survey [pdf] of SFUSD high school students showed nearly 70 percent commute by public transportation while the number of students who come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for free or discounted lunches is up to 61 percent this year.

Despite those numbers, last May the SFMTA Board  voted to increase the price of Youth Muni Fast Passes from $10 to $20. Recently, the SFUSD Board cut fifty percent of the district’s school buses, eliminating another transportation option for many students. As more families face economic hardships and federally-supported student transportation programs are cut, Mormino says the number of families struggling to afford transporting their children to school is growing by the month.

“Transit cost does impact low-income families in the city economically,” said Tan Chow, a parent who lives in North Beach public housing with his wife and daughter, who he walks to her first-grade class at Yick Wo Elementary School in Russian Hill.

“My wife and I share one Clipper, and I have to say, we always debate in Chinatown about whether we should pay $0.75 for the ride or force our daughter to walk,” he said.

Chow described another parent who is only able to take her daughter to school on the bus during the turn of the month grace period when they are able to borrow an unneeded Fast Pass from other parents. During the rest of the month, they walk across Russian Hill.

“The previous month’s Fast Pass is a well sought-after thing for parents in public school,” said Chow.

To address the issue, San Francisco Youth Commission Chair Leah LaCroix pushed a resolution [pdf] sponsored by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi last January that urged the SFMTA to create a Youth Lifeline Discount Fast Pass program, which the Board of Supervisors passed unanimously. That led the SFMTA Board of Directors to earmark $1.4 million in fiscal year 2010-2011 to provide 12,000 of the monthly passes to low-income SFUSD students at a discounted $10 rate.

However, challenges in information disclosure, determining staffing needs, and secure payment collection at schools have thus far left the passes undistributed and the money unspent. Without an easy solution in sight, “people from the community said, ‘why not just give them away for free?” said Mormino.

Youth Commissioners LaCroix and Happy Yang proposed a new resolution [doc] introduced by Campos and five co-sponsors at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting that calls for the SFMTA to use the money to provide free Lifeline Youth Muni Fast Passes to qualifying students for the remaining three months of the school year.

“This is a step in making sure that public transportation is accessible to students in our public school system,” said Campos, adding that he and other supervisors would like to see San Francisco follow in the footsteps of cities like New York, which provides free transit for its public school students.

“This is a step in making sure that public transportation is
accessible to students in our public school system.”

Doing away with fee collection altogether would cut most of the administrative costs and allow more of the budgeted funds to go towards providing desperately needed transportation for disadvantaged students, said Mormino. It would also allow schools to distribute the passes sooner and the SFMTA to use the funds by their July fiscal year deadline.

“I feel really excited that the issue of transportation, especially in these hard times for low-income families, is put front and center,” he said.

While the numbers still have to be worked out, the program would benefit at least 10,000 students, according to Deland Chan, Senior Planner at the Chinatown Community Development Center, which helps distribute the roughly 2,000 passes provided by federal funds from the 1987 Mckinney-Vento Act aimed at assisting transitional homeless youth.

With “Chinatown being one of the transit-dependent neighborhoods in the city, with a large population of low-income families living in SROs, we completely support the creation of the Youth Lifeline Pass,” said Chan, although the $1.4 million still won’t be enough to serve all of the eligible students in the school district.

“The SFMTA is facing a budget deficit, but this money will directly benefit the city’s most vulnerable youth and thus will be well spent,” she said. “When implemented, the Youth Lifeline Pass will be an opportunity to collect data that can support the creation of a free lifeline pass – looking at truancy rates and other beneficial factors.”

A coalition of organizations including the SRO Families Collaborative and the Youth Commission have been advocating for free public transportation for all youth for some time. One leading member in that campaign has been POWER, an organization that works to empower disadvantaged communities and sees free public transit for youth as a “natural extension of the Youth Lifeline Pass,” according to Chan.

She said the SFMTA Board could take action on this week’s resolution as early as March. That’s welcome news to LaCroix, a recent high-school graduate herself.

“Friends of mine are saying the bus is getting too expensive – it’s a reality, young people having to hop on the back of the bus and not pay. My friends tell me they do that, and I encourage them not to,” she said. “But this is real for a lot of families in San Francisco.”

  • In a town with people going to far flung schools, and effectively no school buses, leveraging MUNI to transport kids to school is a bargain. All SFUSD kids should get a free bus pass – supporting the people mentioned in this article and giving at least a nominal incentive to reduce the numbers driving their kids to school, gridlocking the neighborhoods surrounding said schools.

    The percentage of MUNI revenues coming from this population is not trivial but it’s small, and the return on investment for such a policy would make it a no brainer.

  • Sean H

    I am in charge of running the 10/11 Youth Transit Pass Program in Marin County. In 09/10 Marin Transit committed $353k in subsidized fare media to low income students. The program is based upon free or reduced price lunches. For students with higher incomes, there is an annual pass for $325. The program requires significant administration costs because we are in charge of verifying income and collecting money.

    Currently the program is a completely unfunded mandate. This should change. Monies that originally went directly to private contractors such as First Student (yellow bus) should be committed to the local transit authority. Also, it is a tremendous benefit for each schools’ neighborhood in terms of overflow parking and congestion, so I don’t think its a stretch to ask city governments or school districts for funds. It is a vital program that reduces truancy, allows both parents to work full time, reduces congestion, saves money for poor families, and promotes young students to take transit later in life as an adult.

  • Seven

    Free Muni Passes for low income youth.

    Funded, of course, by the promise of more and more parking tickets.

  • Seven

    PS: Muni is completely broke. Remember? They can’t afford to even maintain their vehicles.

  • Tired of Everyone Getting Freebies

    No problem from me with them being free, but with a big IF. If the students are citizens or legal resident aliens, then it’s OK. But proof of this status should be mandatory before a student is given a free pass. Otherwise, it’s just another “freebie” being given to people who are here illegally and paid for by still-working senior citizens like myself. Besides, if SF had neighborhood schools instead of truckign students all around the city to achieve who knows what in the process, then all this wouldn’t be an issue. Students could merely walk to the school in their neighborhood. Methinks this is nothing more than some liberal giveaway to a bunch of illegal residents. After all, it seems to be sponsored by our formerly illegal allien supervisor Campos. Why doesn’t he donate his entire salary to this project if he feels it so worthy?

  • @Seven prefers truancy, congestion, unemployed parents. I see. How about we fund this program by needing fewer truancy officers, higher tax collection from employed parents who can spend money (and thus pay sales taxes), and productivity gains from congestion reduction.

    Sean – I sent a letter to Campos, included in my plea to just make passes available to all students I mentioned this would save administrative costs due to removing the need to means test. Can you quantify “Significant administration costs” and send that to Campos?

  • “But proof of this status should be mandatory before a student is given a free pass.”

    Paying someone to document this proof would cost more than the pass. And if the student does not have a pass, then their undocumented parent with no driver’s license will be driving them to school. This is not a good place to start working on immigration reform – the return on investment is negative. Think like a capitalist for a second.

  • Bob Davis

    Students on public transit reminds me of the “school trippers” that Pacific Electric ran in the 30’s and 40’s here in Southern California. The service I’m most familiar with was the San Marino to South Pasadena High School special. It was before my time, but I’m very familiar with the territory. According to stories from old PE trainmen, school trippers were usually run by men at the bottom of the seniority list. Even though San Marino in those days was the very epitome of a “lily-white suburb”, there were enough “Animal House” types in the passenger mix to make the run a nerve-wracking experience for the conductors.

  • Nick

    Is this an issue of transit or of forming early dependency upon the State? Would kids be better served by walking miles to school if they can’t afford to take the bus?

    Wouldn’t it instill a desire for education as a means to escape poverty? Or the desire to bike to school because it’s faster than walking?

  • SFMTA is in a similar situation to Sean H, it’s lifeline pass program sells discounted $30/month passes to qualified recipients and costs over $2.5 million per year to run.

  • Mario Tanev

    I think this is a good idea, but…

    In general, I think any social programs should be paid for by the city and not the transit agency. SFMTA is in the business of providing mobility, not social justice. It is already very financially strained and that hurts operations. Another unfunded mandate may make the bad situation worse. Thus SFMTA should just bill the general fund for this service. Remember, the cost of running the service is not simply the fares lost, but providing extra runs to handle the increase in student riders in peak hours (which are more expensive for Muni to run due to work rules that have resulted in no part-time drivers handling the excess demand).

    To the extent that SFMTA will reduce expenses due to no longer administering the payments for the pass right now, it should discount that from the bill it sends the city. And yes, all of this will be hard to estimate properly, so SFMTA may over-estimate and fudge the numbers. But in effect, if it doesn’t, it will continue losing money without properly understanding why (it is up to city to challenge the amounts). It’s time for SFMTA to be on the winning side of work orders. I know a lot of readers hate those that SFMTA gets slammed to pay for, but when properly audited, they help to bring more transparency in governance, and it’s time they go the other way (in Muni’s favor).

    So, supervisors are fully welcome to pay for this through the general fund.

  • Mario Tanev


    To the extent that the expense Muni incurs in running the lifeline pass arises from the unfunded mandate it has in administering instead of simply selling the regular pass, Muni should be reimbursed for providing any discounts at all. So then Muni doesn’t have to estimate how much it will save by eliminating the pass (and making it free). It should just charge the city for any social-justice discounts (including senior) it provides plus the expense of handling the extra demand.

    Of course you can argue that the city already pays for those by funding Muni, however there is currently no dedicated source for funding discounts. They compete for funding with general operating expenses. Potentially the city could reduce its funding by the estimated cost of providing the discounts *today*, but will then be charged for paying for the discounts *tomorrow* whatever the cost is tomorrow. I think it would be a win for the SFMTA, and a win for transparency as the city will have a vested interest in controlling the cost of this social program and SFMTA won’t have to deal with social justice and concentrate on the business of providing mobility.

  • Nick,

    I’m sure, like me, you walked six miles uphill to school through the snow each day and then fourteen miles uphill home. And your family lived in at the bottom of a lake and you had to wake up each morning half an hour before you went to bed. (Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen did it before us.)

    I, too, am concerned about nefarious early dependency on the state. I really don’t mind giving bankers billions in bonuses–after all they work hard to siphon all productive investment from our economy and indenture our citizens for the next three generations–but giving children a way to get to school just makes them soft and lazy. We should assign them all to schools in Marin–that’ll teach them to complain about the cost of Muni passes. Besides, I’m sure if we don’t educate them, they’ll go away somewhere eventually and not bother us anymore.

    But when it comes to nefarious socialism and liberal giveaways, there’s so much more! We should cease all maintenance of our roads. When they start looking like the surface of the moon, then our slacker population will get out there and lay the asphalt themselves. And public hospitals–people should be sewing up their own cuts and setting their own bones. How lazy can you get? Indeed, there should be no schools at all–kids can get everything they need from the internet. If they don’t have a computer at home, they should go to Starbucks and read over someone’s shoulder.

    The Golden Gate and Bay bridges? What a bunch of whiners. If it’s so important, you can row across the bay yourself. Fire department? Don’t you have a garden hose? Parks and playgrounds? Find a vacant lot. We should pay no taxes ever for anything ever again. There should be no licensing, regulations or rules of any kind–they just constrain people from their god-give right to make profits. Government–and all collective action for that matter–is for weaklings who have forgotten how to eat raw meat and run over people with their 4x4s.

  • BT

    Great way to make Muni unusable for everyone who is not a “low income youth”. Ever ride the bus when school just let out? These very same indisciplined, unsocialized kids make the busses h*ll for seniors and middle aged, middle income riders. And of course the drivers ignore it all.

    One wonders if David Campos has set himself the goal to make San Francisco utterly unlivable for anyone not on welfare or some form of public support (his constituency).

  • BT,

    I know, I know. Kids are so icky. What a drag it is to share our streets and sidewalks and transit with them, and pay for schools for the beastly little things on top of it. Why do people in San Francisco have children at all? We’ve done our best to chase them out, but some folks don’t seem to get the message. Perhaps we can have a mass transportation of all children to somewhere convenient, like Tasmania?

  • BT is on to something. We should just ban anyone under the age of 18 from MUNI. In addition, nobody going to a Giants game should be allowed – they completely cluster up the N. And don’t get me started on out of town tourists – you should have to show a state issued ID showing you are an SF resident to ride MUNI, especially on the weekends when there is a crazy event in Golden Gate Park and BART/Caltrain bring these nefarious losers in for Bay to Breakers, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, etc…

  • Virginia Balogh-Rosenthal

    Many parents drive to work because they have to first drop off their kids at school. If enough public school kids began taking MUNI, perhaps private school parents would see that it is not so outrageous to require their own kids to take the bus to school.

    This could free up a whole lot of parents who now schlep their kids all over town. Who knows – some of those parents might begin to take MUNI as well!

  • Bob Davis

    Uh oh! Requiring anyone boarding a Muni train or bus to have ID showing that they’re a certified resident of SF! One of the main reasons why I have been visiting The City since 1967 (and why I even look at this website) is because I’m an electric railway fan, and up until 1990, we Southern Californians lived in the Great Traction Desert. And if this admittedly facetious suggestion came to pass, might as well shut down the cable cars–not even invoking the ghost of Mrs. Klussmann would save them from a disappearance of visitors paying $5.00 to ride them.
    Note that although I’ve never resided in MuniLand, when I’m there on vacation people ask me for directions.
    Seriously, it’s hard enough to get an education, let’s not make it even more difficult. BUT, the city general fund, not the Muni budget, should pay for student passes, and should also pay for extra cops to keep a lid on the rowdy element.

  • Nick

    Thanks Taomom for the kick back towards reality.

  • BobG

    Why would these kids even need to worry about having a transit pass? I’ve observed that they are the ones who usually get on the back door without paying.

  • Sean H

    @JohnMurphy: We have calculated havent been able to calculate an accurate number, but we have $10k as a placeholder amount to disburse 3,200 passes. Staff assumes joint responsibility for the program- there is no dedicated staffer. I assume that MTA will be disbursing many more, plus they have to deal with clipper eventually. 29 schools currently participate in the program.

  • Sean H

    Few typos there, we haven’t calculated the exact admin cost. It also should be noted that there is a large burden on the school administrators- they have to coordinate paperwork and hold the money.

  • I’m not convinced by this.

    It is big burden to create individual social program like this. There will be big overhead in administration cost for enrollment and outreach. And then the city is going to end up with myriad of programs, each with their own different eligibility and their own overhead. The worst is the politicizing that follows. Expect lot of debates over the detail and eligibility. And good luck if we want to cut back during the lean year.

    Either make it free for all youth. Or have one program at the city level. Don’t burden SFMTA in running social program. This shouldn’t be their job.

  • guest

    no the non profit organizations will do all the outreach, and all thats necessary in overhead is the ability to count to 12,000, easy done


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