San Francisco’s pilot program for commuter shuttles could be stalled for months or even derailed by The City’s largest labor union and community advocates who are fighting the proposal by using a state environmental law.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency approved the pilot program for commuter shuttles, which are commonly referred to as tech buses, after years of rising tensions. Any delay would leave many unanswered questions for the workers and students who use the shuttles, along with police and parking control officers. The pilot was born in response to complaints about the impacts of the shuttles and lack of traffic-violation enforcement.
The opponents of the SFMTA proposal are appealing for the shuttle program to undergo a rigorous environmental study.
Under the California Environmental Quality Act, projects are analyzed for their impacts on the environment. Those that could have significant impacts must undergo an environmental review while others can be exempted, which was the case with the shuttle pilot program. The exemption decision, made by the Planning Department, is what opponents are appealing to the Board of Supervisors.
The SFMTA, which created the pilot program, declined to comment on how it would react to having to conduct an environmental report.
“At this point, it would not be appropriate to speculate, but we are confident that the CEQA clearance is appropriate and will be upheld,” SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose said.
The appeal will put the Board of Supervisors in the hot seat April 1, when the 11 elected officials are expected to vote on whether to uphold the appeal, which would require the program to undergo an environmental review. The vote hearing is expected to draw a large turnout.
The appeal for a larger study on the shuttles argues that the buses have led to displacement and other elements of gentrification in The City. The tensions between residents and the burgeoning tech industry — which some blame for the rise in rents, cost of living and evictions — garnered nationwide attention when activists blocked commuter buses in December.
And while much of the attention around commuter shuttles focuses on those ferrying tech workers to Silicon Valley, the SFMTA program also addresses buses carrying passengers around The City. The transit agency said there are 48 known shuttle providers in The City, 19 regional and 29 intracity, with 350 vehicles serving 35,000 riders operating on an average weekday.
The SFMTA board of directors voted in January to approve the 18-month pilot. It would charge operators $1 per stop per day for use of up to 200 of Muni’s several thousand stops. The program is scheduled to take effect in July.
But a successful appeal of the environmental review could derail the plan and force city officials and shuttle operators to look for alternatives, since completing such a review could take more than a year.
Already the companies have been operating in limbo, since they could be fined $271 for blocking the Muni stops, though it is unclear how often those types of citations have been handed out to commuter shuttles in the past decade.
SFMTA emails exchanged during the past three years between the agency and some of the companies that operate the buses have indicated that there has been a “handshake agreement” to use Muni stops without fear of reprisal.
But lax enforcement seems inconceivable now that the issue has received so much attention, appellants say.
“What The City should be doing is enforcing the rules as they currently exist,” said Chris Daly, a former member of the Board of Supervisors and political director for Service Employees International Union Local 1021, one of the appellants.
Daly also suggested that the corporate shuttles could come up with some alternatives, such as leasing a facility where they could load and unload passengers.
Richard Drury, the appellants’ attorney who has 20 years of CEQA law experience, said the appeal is all about a rarely used exemption with little, if any, case law history. It’s known as a Class 6 information collection exemption, which is permissible for such things as research and basic data collection “which do not result in a serious or major disturbance to an environmental resource.”
If the board doesn’t uphold the appeal, appellants have hinted they may file a lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court to let a judge decide.
“In the absence of a program, they [the shuttles] are illegal,” Drury said. “I guess they could proceed at their own risk as they have been doing for years.”
A disruption of the commuter shuttles would force the many workers to find alternate means of getting to work, including driving on their own, carpooling or public transportation.
“I recommend Caltrain,” Daly said. “I always enjoy Caltrain.”