Some say yes. Many say no. According to an op-ed piece in Thursday's Chronicle, the good-intentioned plan, sparked by Supervisor David Campos, stands as "an appealing idea that City Hall is all but certain to adopt." While the plan would help kids get to school, ease parents' drop-off schedules, and possibly alleviate traffic congestion, it would also add another $4 million to $7.9 million dent "for the under-funded transit system facing a $23 million deficit."
Urging for a kids-ride-free Muni, the Chronicle said the following:
Lining up the funds is major worry. Muni has $1.4 million from low-income student program with another $4 million possible from regional transit funds. The balance might be squeezed from other public sources and private donations.
Also, any money spent to subsidize student fares would come at the expense of other Muni projects that add bus seats, vehicles and more service. Though the free youth rides are billed as a trial program, it would be nearly impossible to cancel once it got under way.
That's why a good idea needs to treated carefully. There may be reasonable tweaks to consider. Students could be restricted to school hours and weekdays as they are in cities with similar plans. Free rides could be restricted to needy students only. These rules, however, could be hard to enforce and overly complicated, factors that Campos says argue for 24/7 free rides for youths.
On balance, the concept is a positive one and worth trying. There are 36,000 daily riders under 18, and several thousand more could be coaxed out of cars if the plan swung into place.
That's a win for convenience, schools, traffic congestion and social disparities. Now it's up to transit planners to find both the money and the operating rules that will make the program a success. It's a challenge the city can and should meet.
Pretty nifty, right? Not so much, said Supervisor Scott Wiener via his Facebook page:
I respectfully disagree with the Chronicle on this. While free Muni for youth sounds good, saddling Muni with another $8.5 million annual obligation -- when Muni currently lacks the funds to maintain its system and has a structural deficit of about $150 million -- doesn't make sense. Although this is technically a 2-year trial program, there's no way Muni will be able to take this back after 2 years. It is very likely to become permanent. In addition, if we're going to do it, there's no reason to provide free Muni to kids who aren't low income.
Adding to the nay column is esteemed blogger Akit from Akit's Complaint Department. (Side note: if anyone at City Hall wants to make public transit better for all San Franciscans, it would be wise to follow Akit religiously... or, better yet, give him a job.) He responded to the Chronicle's piece thusly:
One of the major problems is just the cost of running such a program. The Chronicle estimates the cost to be at least $4 million to as high as $7.9 million (let's just say eight). That's a lot of money for an agency that's been bleeding in the red ever since Nat Ford ruined the agency and took a nice 300K+ "up yours" package when he was fired. Four million, if properly spent, can be used for something better for EVERYONE, and not just for the kids.
Another pressing issue is future conduct by riders. Akit goes on to point out:
One bigger concern I have is conduct. Here's my two big issues:
1) Remember the "Spare the Air" program gave out free transit rides for everyone? It was a success for keeping the air cleaner and more people taking public transit, but it caused a bunch of other problems from transit agencies. People decided to take public transit to just get off at the next stop just because it was "free," this meant delays on transit lines because people are too lazy to just walk to the next stop. For BART, they hated it; youth passengers caused mayhem on the system and turned into a roving hangout (including homeless folks); it reached such a boiling point that BART decided at the next future "Spare the Air" to make people pay for their rides.
2) If Muni gives rides for "free" to the youth, it just lets them barge through the back door of buses and steal the seats from the rest of the honest people who boards through the front door.