‘Google Bus’ hearing concludes, ruling may come early December

The infamous ‘Google Buses’ were scofflaws operating in a transportation “wild west,” free of regulation, to hear 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.

The outcome could potentially send the SFMTA back to the drawing board – forcing them to perform rigorous environmental study of the commuter shuttles which ferry tech workers from San Francisco to Silicon Valley.

The 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 – this, 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.

SFMTA has long maintained the pilot program was a means study the buses. But Davis winnowed away at that argument, and said The City had no legal ground with which to defy state transportation code for a study.

The program was not even a study, she argued, but the launch of a massive new transit program. Since the pilot program 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 went next. She 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 “compliment” Muni buses at stops.

“We’re trying to play the cards we’ve been dealt,” Pearson said.

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

Muni stops, by contrast, are “empty most of the time,” she said.

“This specter that shuttles will take over city streets is unreasonable,” she said.

Many of the arguments made were in legal filings, sent to the judge before oral arguments in the hearing. Speaking to those filings, Pearson addressed the heart of one of the litigants gravest contentions – that commuter shuttles cause rents to spike, and potentially escalate evictions.

This “displacement effect” is something The City should study, the litigants said previously.

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

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

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

Essentially, he argued, 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.

Without making this legal argument during the hearing, the judge should not even consider the evidence of the case, 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, evidence provided in filings are the minimum to prove litigation “standing.”

“The petitioners live in San Francisco, walk in San Francisco, and breathe air in San Francisco,” he said, and that was demonstrated in the evidence itself.

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

“I want to get something out on this particular issues before the holidays,” he told the court. Depending on the outcome, the merits of the case would be considered afterwards, though no time-frame was given.

Until then, the Commuter Shuttle Program, which is the permanent version of the pilot, will move forward. Next Tuesday, the SFMTA Board of Directors will vote whether or not ‘Google Buses’ are here to stay.

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