Transit group walks back its comments opposing transit housing bill

That clap-back also may have earned the group the ire of its own members

In a rare voice of dissent from transit-boosters, the San Francisco Transit Riders advocacy group has spoken out against the housing development-near-transit state Senate Bill 50 earlier this month.

That clap-back also may have earned the group the ire of its own members, as well as the state senator who authored the bill, leading the organization to walk back its comments just this week, on Monday.

Authored by State Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), transit-oriented agencies, think tanks and other groups have flocked to SB50 as a needed bill to hasten more housing development, even as neighborhood groups in San Francisco push back, arguing that more housing density will tax already-overburdened city services.

SB50 would rezone neighborhoods near robust transit service, encouraging developers to build ever-higher if buses and trains are nearby. It has also seen its supporters fight tooth and nail for each endorsement, as the bill has met heavy opposition in previous iterations among state elected officials.

The bill’s proponents have fought to keep it on the rails locally, too.

At a San Francisco County Transportation Authority board meeting on December 17, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to approve Supervisor Gordon Mar’s resolution to conditionally oppose SB50 until transit investments are made, in tandem, with the housing development portion of the bill.

Mar wants money for buses and trains to come simultaneously with the carrot to encourage taller development.

He alleged that SB50 would increase housing production without also making needed investments in transit, hampering transit growth and potentially packing people into already crowded buses and trains.

The Transit Riders group agreed, and spoke publicly, on record, supporting Mar’s resolution to oppose SB50.

“I’m here also to support Supervisor Mar’s resolution,” Cat Carter, acting executive director of the Transit Riders told the transportation authority board during public comment. “While we support increased development of housing in San Francisco, it’s not like there are a ton of empty seats on Muni buses and trains.”

Carter cited the completion of Chase Center Arena before improvements to the T-Third train and nearby anticipated ferry landing were finished as an analogy to housing in California, saying that transit funding should be tied to housing development.

It’s an argument often made by West Side homeowners opposed to SB50, and not often one voiced by transit groups. It also earned Wiener’s attention.

“Yesterday, transit group @SFTRU opposed #SB50. It argued density by transit strains transit,” Wiener tweeted to his 59,000 Twitter followers on Dec. 18. He continued, “It’s a classic NIMBY claim: No housing until infrastructure is perfect. It’s also pro-sprawl, pro-carbon: ‘Until transit is great for me, you can’t live here. Just drive in from Tracy.’”

That’s when he took aim at the Transit Riders.

”.@SFTRU’s credibility as a transit advocacy organization is at issue here,” Wiener tweeted. “I hope it’ll stop making anti-transit NIMBY arguments. Transit works when lots of people can walk to it. Low density zoning near transit pushes people away from transit.”

Housing development and transit development are oft-regarded as interlinked, and those who support the expansion of both call themselves “urbanists.” To have an ostensible urbanist group voice critique of SB50, then, sent ripples through the local urbanist community beyond Wiener.

On social media, urbanists from across San Francisco denounced the Transit Riders’ opposition to SB50.

“What the heck,@SFTRU? Sorry guys, not getting my membership this go-around,” wrote Twitter user @jcb10, whose profile identifies them as John C. Baker, who works for a school district. “Your #SB50 take is actually counterproductive to good transit, which is dependent on riders.”

Transportation bodies have previously backed SB50. The BART Board of Directors voted to back it, and the urbanist think tank SPUR has also voiced its support for it, for instance.

Urbanists in public forums argued that the Transit Riders’ position on SB50 was not in agreement with their goals to improve transit in SF and elsewhere. Suburban sprawl, which SB50 is meant to combat, exacerbates the capacity of regional transit systems, some argued.

It also may be a risky move for an organization that, while well established, had only hired its first executive director in 2017.

Carter, the acting director of the Transit Riders, told the San Francisco Examiner she thinks Mar has been “unfairly characterized as a NIMBY,” and framed as a Wiener versus the Board of Supervisors issue, when really, the conversation has more nuance.

”Scott Wiener has absolutely been a champion for transit and transit funding. We do not intend to stop his housing legislation,” Carter said. “We were looking for a way to make it easier to increase transit where you increase density.”

And although she expressed support in a public forum for Mar’s resolution conditionally opposing SB50, Carter went on record with the Examiner on December 23 saying “We do not oppose SB50.”

“We don’t want to focus on the housing density as much as we want to focus on making sure the transit side doesn’t fall behind again,” she said. “We are supportive of Gordon Mar’s efforts to improve SB 50.”

Also on December 23, the group walked back their earlier opposition publicly, writing in a statement that they heard the ire of their members and clarifying their remarks, while also repeating that they did not oppose SB50.

When the Examiner asked Carter if they support SB50, however, she answered, “We can’t say that either.”

Mar, for his part, said in the meeting he would support SB50 if simultaneous support for transit was also offered, as the Examiner previously reported.

“Housing development doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We must plan for increased housing density comprehensively,” Mar said in the Dec. 17 meeting. And by “considering transit infrastructure and services alongside housing, we create better results. Not for developers’ bottom lines, but for the public good.”

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