Supervisors to vote on environmental appeal of commuter shuttle program

Dueling interests battling over the future of San Francisco will face off at City Hall on Tuesday when the Board of Supervisors will vote on an appeal of a commuter shuttle pilot program.

While the decision will be based on a California environmental law, the vote on the fee program has broader significance and political ramifications in the ongoing debate over whether the booming technology industry is hurting San Francisco’s character or is a welcomed economic engine deserving praise. Under the fee pilot, commuter buses using Muni stops would pay $1 per stop per day.

Judging by the arguments laid out in the appeal case and the efforts of both sides to turn out their supporters, the tensions that have been building up in The City over evictions and a climbing cost of living — which have already led to spirited community meetings, rallies and legislative efforts — will come to a head.

Tuesday’s vote was triggered when the largest city employee union, Service Employees International Union Local 1021, with the support of other groups like the League of Pissed-Off Voters, filed an appeal under the California Environmental Quality Act over the commuter shuttle program, which was approved in January by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Under the state law, projects are analyzed for their impacts on the environment. Those with no significant impact can be exempted from doing an environmental study, which was the case with the shuttle pilot program.

The Class 6 information collection exemption was granted for city transit-related projects including the bike-share program and the removal of a vehicle traffic lane on Folsom Street between 4th and 11th streets.

In making their case, the appellants are arguing the shuttles pose impacts associated with cancer risks, noise, pedestrian safety and tenant displacement, necessitating the environmental study.

“We have 200 pages of expert analysis and studies,” said Richard Drury, the appellants’ attorney.

The City argues in part that such impacts can’t be tied to the pilot, which would impose regulations where none exist.

“The commuter shuttles are part of the existing environment, and potential impacts from the project must be compared against this baseline condition,” said a Planning Department memo from March 24 in response to the appeal.

That baseline is the 48 shuttle providers identified in August 2013 operating about 350 shuttle vehicles on an average weekday comprising about 35,000 boardings, according to the memo.

“Commuter shuttles include both 29 known intra-city services (e.g. UCSF) and 19 known regional services (e.g. Genentech, Google),” the memo said.

But Drury claimed Friday that “I don’t think you can use an illegal situation as your baseline.”

While appellants argue that, “Without the shuttles, far fewer highly paid technology workers would be displacing low-income San Francisco residents,” the planning memo says there is no evidence to suggest the pilot would have a direct impact on displacement or the housing supply.

The 18-month pilot, scheduled to take effect July 1, will charge operators for use of up to 200 of Muni’s several thousand stops.

Google directed requests for comment Friday to the Bay Area Council, which released a poll last week showing widespread support for the technology industry and the shuttle buses. Last month, Google donated $6.8 million to the transit agency to fund a free Muni program for youths during the next two years.

The technology lobbying group is calling on tech workers to show up en masse at Tuesday’s vote while maligning the appellants as “divisive.” The group, chaired by Ron Conway, Mayor Ed Lee’s prominent backer and an angel investor, boasts a membership of 500 technology companies.

Cynthia Crews, of appellant League of Pissed-Off Voters, objects to being called a tech-hater and says she is fighting to prevent “devastating impacts.”

Drury echoed those sentiments. “I don’t think anyone is arguing that these vehicles should be banned.”

A successful appeal could derail the plan and force city officials and shuttle operators to look for alternatives, as the review process could take more than a year. SFMTA emails exchanged during the past three years between the agency and some of the companies that operate the buses have indicated there has been a “handshake agreement” to use Muni stops without fear of reprisal.

SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose said Friday that without the pilot “the status will remain as it is now,” and there would not be a clear enforcement plan in place. But he noted the agency is “confident that the CEQA clearance is appropriate and will be upheld,” Rose said.

Erin McElroy, director of the San Francisco Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, who has organized shuttle protests, is hoping that the board connects transportation to housing problems and upholds the appeal.

“We’re already seeing that is trying to stack the house,” McElroy said. “There is a lot of tech influence over our government right now. We’ll see on Tuesday whether the government will listen to tech over the voices of longtime tenants.”

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