muni_driver.jpgQualifying low-income youth are slated to start riding San Francisco Municipal Railway buses and trains for free starting in March 2013 following today’s approval of a pilot program by the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors.

The board unanimously passed a resolution at this afternoon’s City Hall meeting that accepts and expends $1.6 million for a 16-month pilot program to provide free Muni rides for youth who apply for the program and are eligible.

The funding comes from a $6.7 million Transit Performance Initiative grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission that also puts $5.1 million into a light-rail vehicle rehabilitation program.

Transportation director Ed Reiskin said the “lion’s share” of the grant goes to service improvement, but “enables us to serve both” service needs and youth riders.

The TPI funding has the goal of increasing ridership, which is something free Muni advocates, including city Supervisor David Campos, have claimed the program will promote.

“Because of these riders the system will be sustained,” Campos said at today’s meeting. “It’s helping low-income youth and making sure the system works.”

Today’s decision follows back-and-forth discussions regarding the pilot program including an April SFMTA board meeting where members approved a free Muni program contingent on MTC funding.

Then, back in October, MTC granted the $6.7 million to the transit agency to use as seen fit, which spurred new discussion, including involvement with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, about how the money should be spent.

After some compromise with youth advocate groups, the pilot program went from a 22-month program for all city youth to a 16-month trial period for low-income families.

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.

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

A youth month pass on Muni costs $22 per month.

Today’s reaction was joyous as a crowd of supporters at the meeting broke out in applause and continued to express their happiness with the decision outside the board chambers.

“It will invest in a new generation of transit riders,” San Francisco Youth Commission spokesman Paul Monge-Rodriguez said.

The next steps for the youth advocates are ensuring implementation and access, while also monitoring the program’s effectiveness.

“It has been two years–we are really happy,” Donaji Lona, an organizer with POWER, said. “We have to make sure all kids have access.”

Applications for the program are set to go out to families by the end of the month and will be ready for submission to the SFMTA starting in January, according to the Monge-Rodriguez.

The program will then kick off in March 2013 and continue through June 30, 2014, when the decision to continue the program will be reevaluated, according to SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose.

Sasha Lekach, Bay City News

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