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Fate of ‘Google Buses’ to be debated by transit board

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Mike Koozmin/2014 S.F. Examiner

Tomorrow the fate of the notorious “Google Buses” will be decided by a vote of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Board of Directors.

The board will vote to approve or not approve the Commuter Shuttle Program, the permanent version of a pilot program in place since last year.

But the board debate of commuter shuttle regulations comes on the heels of another controversy around the shuttles — a trial, which could potentially send the shuttle regulations back to square one.

The infamous “Google Buses” were scofflaws operating in a transportation “wild west,” free of regulation, to hear deputy city attorneys tell the tale. Only the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency tamed the nascent industry, they said.

Litigants against The City, on the other hand, argue the SFMTA is fast-tracking the permanency of commuter shuttles, aka “Google Buses,” in San Francisco — without studying impacts to the air and of potentially skyrocketing rents near shuttle stops.

These are the arguments Superior Court Judge Garrett Wong will now weigh as the trial debating commuter shuttles concludes. The “Google Bus” had its moment in court Friday, and Wong may decide the fate of the regulations governing these buses as soon as Dec. 11.

Friday’s environmental hearing lasted only a day, after many months of delays. It centered around the SFMTA’s Commuter Shuttle Pilot Program, which city attorneys argue was enacted to study how often commuter shuttles stop in San Francisco, where they stop, and how large shuttle ridership is, among other data.

Attorneys representing the litigants, known as the Coalition for Fair, Legal and Environmental Transit, were up first. Rebecca Davis, representing the coalition, walked to a nearby podium and addressed Judge Wong.

She argued San Francisco had no legal right to allow the commuter shuttles to use public bus stops or any sidewalk painted with red paint. That, she said, is a violation of state law. She then honed in on the legal exemption from environmental review that the SFMTA used to establish the commuter shuttle program.

“The exemption is for gathering data, not launching a transportation system the size of Caltrain,” she said.

The program was not a study as The City claims, she argued, but the launch of a massive new transit program. Since the pilot began, she said, shuttle daily “stop events” grew by 29 percent.

The shuttles used by tech giants like Google, Yahoo and Genentech are not environmentally friendly, she said, and emit exhaust one expert cited as a cancer risk to residents.

Deputy City Attorney Audrey Pearson stayed seated as she refuted Davis’ claims to Judge Wong.

“That’s absolutely not true” that the pilot program “launched” the shuttles, Pearson said. The shuttles ran before SFMTA regulated them. SFMTA, instead, found a way to make them “complement” Muni buses at stops.

To allow commuter shuttles to stop at white-painted curbs (as the litigants argued), Pearson said, would require “taking out hundreds of parking spaces.”

Pearson also addressed the heart of one of the litigants gravest contentions — that commuter shuttles cause rents to spike and potentially escalate evictions.

To that, Pearson said “They don’t show shuttles cause displacement.”

After oral arguments were done, an attorney representing Genentech, Christopher Carr, asked for an immediate motion of judgment from Wong.

The petitioners, he said, did not present “any evidence of standing.”

Essentially the coalition’s attorneys, Richard Drury and Davis, needed to legally state the reasons why the Coalition for Fair, Legal and Environmental Transit had reason to bring the case to court in the first place, Carr said.

“Cleanly, mechanically, there’s just a failure of proof here, your honor,” Carr said. Drury’s shoulders hunched.

Drury replied curtly.

“This is a desperate attempt by my old friend Mr. Carr,” he said. In local environmental hearings, he said, anyone who participates in the environment has “standing” to litigate.

“The petitioners live in San Francisco, walk in San Francisco, and breathe air in San Francisco,” he said.

Judge Wong said he would consider that final argument by Dec. 11, tentatively.

Depending on the outcome, the merits of the case would be considered afterwards, though no time-frame was given.

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