munipiece2.jpgThe Metropolitan Transportation Commission unanimously approved funding this afternoon that could back a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency free bus pass pilot program for low-income youth.

The funding resolution passed by the 14-member commission, which oversees transit systems throughout the region, comes after the commission rejected approval to fund the pilot program in July in an 8-7 vote.

Today’s approval provides $15 million through the transit performance initiative programs, or TPI, which splits money between various regional transit systems to use for improvement projects to increase reliability and ridership.

MTC staff developed a proposal that would allow SFMTA and other transit operators to consider a low-income youth pilot pass program as a potential use of the incentive funding, according to the MTC.

The $6.7 million approved for SFMTA-use can be spent in how the agency sees fit within the limits of the program.

“MTC approved those funds without detailing a specific project,” Muni spokesman Paul Rose said.

Commissioner Steve Kinsey said at today’s meeting held at the Joseph P. Bort MetroCenter at 101 Eighth St. in Oakland, “I think this is the right way for us to move” about the resolution approving the TPI funding.

He went on to explain that he “stepped back” from the plan in July not because he thought the free Muni for youth program was a bad thing, but because he wanted to evaluate the best way to use the funding.

Back in April, the SFMTA board said they would go through with the 22-month pilot program, estimated to cost about $9 million, contingent on funding secured through the MTC.

“The board supported the previous proposal for free Muni for youth based on the understanding that funds would be approved specifically for that project,” Rose said.

However, now that the money is viable to be used in a broader capacity, Rose said the board needs to develop a proposal on how to spend the funds.

“Our proposal will be informed by the upcoming supervisors hearing” on the matter and the outcome of Prop. 30 in the November election, Rose said.

Three San Francisco supervisors wrote a letter Monday to SFMTA transportation director Ed Reiskin and board chairman Tom Nolan urging the SFMTA to consider alternate uses of the funding.

Supervisors Scott Wiener, Carmen Chu and Mark Farrell wrote, “…we, along with Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, intend to call for a hearing on Muni’s operational budget and performance and on Muni’s options for spending the TPI money.

“This hearing will allow for broad discussion of how we can ensure that Muni is meeting our city’s transit needs,” the letter read.

The supervisors noted the flexibility of the TPI funds and requested that the MTA not make any decisions about how to spend the money until the hearing is held.

Wiener said they have yet to name a date for the hearing, but it will be held after the November election.

Youth advocates, many from groups who have formed a coalition through People Organized to Win Employment Rights, or POWER, have been fighting for the free Muni pilot program for more than two years, POWER spokesman Jaron Browne said.

“We are really proud,” Browne said today of the coalition’s efforts.

He extended the group’s gratitude to Supervisor David Campos and Commissioner Kinsey.

“We are really proud of him changing his mind,” Browne said of Kinsey. “He was the deciding vote in July and he ended up being accountable and moving quickly to get this resolved.”

This was the first time many teenagers, mothers, bus drivers and transit riders were part of an organized force campaigning for the program, Browne said.

The group is urging the SFMTA to approve the money for the pilot program to get underway by Jan. 1, 2013.

Browne said Wiener’s requested hearing is “not helpful for sure” and makes way for a discussion on what else the money could be spent on, which Browne and other youth advocates see has a waste of time with school already started.

Wiener at today’s MTC meeting outlined other potential uses of the money.

“We have huge needs for our system,” the supervisor said. “We have vehicles that are broken down; we don’t have funding to repair them.”

He listed needs for more light-rail vehicles and increased service.

Later today, Wiener said, “I don’t support the free Muni proposal, I don’t think Muni can afford it. The system is not as reliable as it needs to be.”

He said the upcoming informational hearing has been called because “we want MTA to present on how it’s doing.”

The Muni pilot program would include a nearly two-year period to monitor data and help establish permanent funding for the program, which has garnered San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s support, Browne said.

The program is poised to help 40,000 low-income youth use public transit in the face of rising bus pass costs and eliminated school bus service, Browne said.

A youth month pass on Muni costs $22 per month, Browne said, a cost that is often be prohibitive for city families.

If the MTA changes their approval for the pilot program, “it would be a slap in the face for everyone fighting for this for the past two years,” Browne said.

Sasha Lekach, Bay City News

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