SFMTA approves tech shuttle plan

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The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors approved a pilot program Jan. 21 that allows operators of private commuter shuttles to use public bus stops, something they've been doing illegally for years on a very predictable basis.

The program will establish an "approved network" of 200 designated San Francisco stops where private shuttles may pick up and drop off passengers. It will issue permits and identifying placards to the private buses and require them to adhere to certain set of rules, like yielding to Muni buses if they approach the stop at the same time. (There's already a Curb Priority Law stating that any vehicles not operated by Muni will be fined $271 for blocking a bus zone. But the city has chosen to ignore that law when it comes to private commuter shuttles.)

Finally, the program will charge shuttle operators $1 per stop per day, which seeks to cover the costs of the program implementation and no more. The meeting drew a very high turnout that included the protesters who have been blockading the buses, Google employees, private commuter shuttle drivers, and residents of various San Francisco neighborhoods.

Sup. Scott Wiener said at the meeting he was fully supportive of the pilot program, which was developed over the course of many months in collaboration with tech companies who operate the shuttles.

"These shuttles are providing a valuable service," Wiener said. He said he was sensitive to widespread "frustration and anxiety" around the high cost of housing and rising evictions, but thought it was unfair to blame tech workers: "We need to stop demonizing these shuttles and these tech workers."

Then Sup. David Campos addressed the board. "I think it's really important for us to have a dialogue to find common ground," Campos said, adding that pushing shuttle riders into private automobiles was not a good outcome. But he also urged the SFMTA board to send the proposal back to the drawing board: "It's a proposal that simply does not go far enough."

Campos was also critical of the SFMTA's process of studying the growing private shuttle problem for years and drafting a proposal in collaboration with members of the tech community, with Campos pointing out, "Public input is being sought after the fact."

Bus plan ignores real cost

Many community members have criticized the new $1 per stop tech shuttle fee as being too low, but city officials say their hands are tied by a state law prohibiting them from charging any more than that.

Yet under Proposition 218 — the state law that limits local governments' ability to impose new fees — the city has more discretion about how to calculate "cost recovery" than officials have let on.

"Prop. 218 is part of a legal scheme that doesn't so much limit how we calculate cost recovery," San Francisco City Attorney's Office spokesperson Gabriel Zitrin told us, "but limits the city to cost recovery."

At the Jan. 21 SFMTA meeting, Project Manager Carli Paine explained how her team had arrived at the $1 per stop, per day fee amount.

"We identified everything it would take to implement this program," Paine said. After identifying all the program components, the agency "took the number of stop events and came up with a 'per stop event' cost...The kinds of costs we included are upfront costs, ongoing program costs."

Under Prop. 218, however, the SFMTA could determine whether there are other costs associated with allowing private commuter shuttles to use public transportation infrastructure, beyond just the cost of issuing and enforcing permits and placards.