No-cost clipper cards will now be offered to financially struggling youth under the Free Muni for Youth Pilot Program, beginning March 1. The program will provide qualifying low to middle-income youth with access to public transportation.
The pilot program will last for 16 months, from March 2013 to June 2014, and then city supervisors will decide on whether to continue the program. Applications for the program are now being accepted.
The reaction from students was overall pleased, with many supporting the program and others questioning some aspects. “As long as it helps the students in the city, I think the free Muni pass is a great idea,” sophomore Danae Kimble said.
Others were more skeptical due to priorities, including junior Calvin Chau. “This was probably not a good investment for the city,” Chau said. “They probably could have invested the money in more important things, such as fixing the buses and improving MUNI services but it’s nice that they were thinking about us.”
Students 17 and under with a gross annual family income at or below the Bay Area median income level — which ranges from $82,400-135,950 based on family size — are eligible for the program, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Eligibility for free or reduced lunch cannot be used to determine eligibility because the requirements for school lunch and free Muni passes are slightly different.
Once deemed eligible, a student will be enrolled in the pilot program for its duration, or until the student’s eighteenth birthday, whichever comes first. There is ongoing enrollment throughout the program so applications are accepted at any time. The clipper card will come by mail if the student is deemed eligible.
The program’s objective is to give financially struggling youth, ages 5 to 17, access to public transit. Over 40 percent of middle and high school students in San Francisco depend on Muni to get to school in the morning and almost 60 percent take it home, according to the San Francisco Examiner. However, in the past two years, the price of Muni’s monthly youth pass has more than doubled and the SFUSD has cut its free transportation service by over 13 percent. In 2009 the youth pass was $10 and now it is $22. “Since the passes are so expensive I will now be able to use the money for something else,” Kimble said.
The Free Muni program is the result of negotiations between the SFMTA’s board of directors, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and youth organizations who worked to make this opportunity possible. In 2011, they held a similar pilot program but it was closed due to the demand exceeding the supply.
Youth organizations, such as People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), Chinatown Community Development Center, and the San Francisco Youth Commission played a pivotal role in working to help make Muni free for low-income youth, according to senior Mia Shackelford, who is on the San Francisco Youth Commission. “This program wouldn’t have been possible without grassroots organizations,” Juana Tello, a POWER organizer and Lowell alumna, said. “Our members were concerned with the rising costs of transportation.”
The battle is not over yet. Both Tello and Shackelford explained that their organizations are looking for independent ways to sustain the program long-term. As it is presently, the program is funded from a $6.7 million grant from the MTC to help the SFMTA increase the number of riders. While the majority of the money will go towards repairs and maintenance to improve system performance, $1.6 million will be spent on the Free Muni program.
Muni has an annual budget of around $800 million, and “within this $800 million budget this program will cost only about 1 percent ($8 million) so there is no reason they should not be able to provide this program,” Tello said.
POWER is working to pressure the MTA to prioritize the issue and extend the program, according to Tello. In order to convince the MTA to continue this program, these organizations will need support from the community. Shackelford advised students to get involved in the effort to keep and maintain the free Muni program.
Students agreed on the key goal of the program. “If you can’t afford public transportation, you should still be able to take it without harsh consequences,” freshman Mason Hawksley said.