April 9th, 2012 SF Gate
A proposal to provide free Muni fares for all youth, of all income levels, is under consideration in San Francisco. While this proposal is well-intentioned, Muni cannot afford the $8 million annual price tag. We need to increase access to transportation for low-income youth, but a new and expensive obligation for Muni - at a time when Muni cannot pay for its basic operational needs and is expanding parking meters and increasing parking fines - is a bad idea.
The understandable public perception is that Muni is expanding parking meters to Sundays, adding new meters, and raising ticket prices not to pay for improvements to the system but rather to fund free Muni for all youth, even those who don't need the subsidy. If that doesn't undermine public confidence in Muni's desire to use taxpayer money to shore up its system and improve service, then I don't know what will.
An efficient, reliable and financially sustainable Muni is key to San Francisco's future. As our population grows, the demands on all aspects of our transportation system will grow as well. We have a lot of work to do to prepare for that growth, given that Muni has a structural deficit of approximately $120 million. In other words, just to get Muni in shape to meet the needs of San Francisco in 2012 and not including future expansions, Muni needs $120 million annually above and beyond current funding. Muni is anything but free.
The proposal to make Muni free for all youth - rich or poor, public school or private school, 24/7/365 - takes Muni's finances in exactly the wrong direction and will increase Muni's structural deficit. Although this proposal is described as a two-year pilot program, once we provide an entitlement like this, it's difficult to take it away. There will be tremendous pressure to continue the program after the pilot ends, and Muni will be saddled with yet another obligation it cannot afford.
Muni's inability to fund basic maintenance has daily consequences for riders. Every time the system melts down because a switch fails, a vehicle door won't close, stairs won't rise, or a derailment occurs, you can be assured that the problem results from Muni not having the funds to maintain its infrastructure properly.
Why make it harder for Muni to maintain its system by imposing a new obligation like this? Why give youth who aren't low income free fares? Why do this when, inevitably, other worthy groups - seniors, people with disabilities - will come forward and ask to be included in the program? How can we say no? We can't, and adoption of Free Muni for Youth will ultimately morph into something far more expansive and expensive.
The most important thing we can do for transportation for youth is make sure that Muni actually works - that it operates on schedule, that it doesn't break down, and that youth and adults alike can rely on it. Placing an additional $8 million annual obligation on Muni takes us in exactly the opposite direction.
A case exists for discounted monthly passes for low-income youth, even beyond the current 70 percent youth discount. Yet, the proposal for free fares for all youth of all economic levels at all times just doesn't make sense. Muni should reject it.
Links: SF Gate Editorial