Controversial tech shuttles on road to becoming part of The City’s transit ecosystem

The infamous “Google buses” have drawn ire from all quarters of San Francisco.

The gleaming white, private double decker buses were first famously protested in 2013, and at another protest an effigy of the bus was beaten as a piñata.

A stroll down Valencia Street reveals an assortment of different Google bus graffiti, some scrawled with a message: “Techies go home.”

But despite the opposition, the Google buses may soon be permanent in The City, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.

Filings from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency show the commuter shuttle pilot program — The City’s program to regulate shuttles like Google buses — is now approaching permanency.

“Make permanent the 18-month commuter shuttle pilot program,” reads filings at the Planning Department, which show an air quality study now in planning stages.

Anti-shuttle advocates who sued the SFMTA, The City and tech companies over the program said the development comes as a surprise because the outcome of a lawsuit to compel environmental studies of the program has not been settled.

“This seems to be happening under the radar,” said Sara Shortt, one of the litigants in the lawsuit. “Without an attempt to inform residents and community organizations, that makes you wonder if this wasn’t sort of a done deal all along.”

The commuter shuttle pilot program began in August 2014. Private shuttles are not new in San Francisco, but more recently were adopted in greater numbers by Google, Yahoo, Genentech and other tech companies to transport employees primarily from The City to the South Bay, Silicon Valley and back.

Since the program was implemented, local advocates Shortt and Sue Vaughan, as well as Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and others, sued The City, the SFMTA and tech companies to compel an environmental review of the pilot program.

According to the SFMTA, 205 shuttles operate in San Francisco, traveling 118 routes — and The City recoups $3.67 per “stop event” of each bus for the cost of the pilot program.

Emails obtained from the SFMTA by Vaughan under local public record laws reveal problems with the pilot, advocates say.

In the emails obtained by Vaughan, planners repeatedly refer to making the program permanent in a “tight schedule” and, in the effort to adhere to this schedule, some data on the program was an “educated guess” from planners.
The SFMTA disagrees that the program is being “fast tracked.”

“We have not and will not cut any corners,” said Paul Rose, an SFMTA spokesman. “We have to take the steps necessary to ensure there are no gaps in shuttle service, should the program be made permanent.”

As for moving forward with the program, Rose said, “Rather than wait for a legal process that may or may not impact the program, we are simply doing our due diligence to prepare for either outcome.”

Shortt said these “shortcuts are problematic.” The concerns of Shortt and other litigants are twofold: Commuter shuttles may impede Muni access and displace communities.

The emails show the second concern may not be addressed by the SFMTA.

A June 2015 email from city Environmental Planner Joy Navarrete to Hank Wilson, an SFMTA analyst, reveals The City is seeking exemption from environmental impact reviews.

“October 14, 2015 Catex issued,” the email reads, laying out a proposed schedule. “November 3, 2015 MTA Board Approval. December 8, 2015 last day of Catex appeal period. January 26, 2016 Catex appeal at [Board of Supervisors].”

A “CatEX” is a categorical exemption form, which may indicate the SFMTA is seeking approval to avoid analyzing other environmental impacts.

Opponents of the shuttle program also contend the program will accelerate displacement of area residents, which is a legal environmental concern under the California Environmental Quality Act and may be subject to study.

Studies by the S.F.-based Anti-Eviction Mapping Project show rents rise considerably in apartments around commuter shuttle stops, which they argue leads to evictions of residents.

“This is being railroaded through,” said Vaughan, one of the litigants.
“They’d need a much deeper level of analysis before moving forward,” Shortt added.

The email also revealed Navarrete assumed certain dates for approvals of the program, namely the SFMTA board approval on Nov. 3 — 10 days before the trial for the pilot program.

SFMTA staff said the board of director votes were not preplanned. “That email was describing the projected timeline, pending approval at each step in the process,” Rose said. “Decisions are not made prior to meeting.”

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