(Mike Koozmin/2014 S.F. Examiner)

Trial over ‘Google bus’ begins; controversial program slated to become permanent next week

San Francisco’s favorite symbol of gentrification, the Google Bus, is seemingly everywhere: beaten as a pinata in protests, demonized on stickers stuck onto Muni buses and the subject of protest graffiti in the Mission.

Now the so-called “Google Bus” — more accurately, commuter shuttles — are driving somewhere entirely new: court.

Today marks the first trial date of the Commuter Shuttle Pilot Program in Superior Court, where litigants will go toe-to-toe with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency over its regulation of the tech shuttles.

Google, Genentech and other tech companies are also parties in the trial.

And on the heels of the trial, the SFMTA Board of Directors will consider making the pilot program permanent on Tuesday.

With one vote, San Francisco may be permanently wedded to the commuter shuttles.

At question in the trial is the need for environmental study. The litigants, including the SEIU Local 1021, activists Sara Shortt, Sue Vaughan and others argue The City needs to study the commuter shuttles’ impact on air quality, pedestrian safety and displacement of communities.

“What we’re saying is the buses have real impacts on The City,” said Richard Drury, the attorney litigating against San Francisco. “The intention of CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] is not to stall and kill projects, but to ensure agencies measure all impacts.”

Though the buses carry many would-be car drivers from San Francisco to Silicon Valley, the tech workers have many impacts on The City, litigants say.

They argue because tech workers flock to live near the stops, they also drive up nearby rents, which fuels evictions. Displacement of communities can be measured under CEQA.

Litigants also argue the shuttles illegally use red-painted curbs, which is not allowed by California law.

The City, for its part, feels it has a strong case.

“We’re convinced that The City fully met its legal obligations to thoroughly consider the environmental effects of our Commuter Shuttle Pilot Program, including its many benefits,” wrote Matt Dorsey, spokesman for the City Attorney’s Office, which represents the SFMTA in legal matters, in an email.

The litigants arguments are “without merit,” he wrote, and “we’re cautiously optimistic that the court will agree.”

On Tuesday, Nov. 17, the SFMTA Board of Directors will consider making the program permanent. As the San Francisco Examiner previously uncovered, emails obtained in public records requests reveal planners fast-tracking the project, attempting to speedily meet key deadlines for environmental exemption.

And as the effort to make the Commuter Shuttle Program permanent sped up, the City Attorney’s Office repeatedly stalled the trial date.

In its documentation sent to the SFMTA board to argue for permanency, SFMTA staff said by law, shuttles are free to use San Francisco streets and can only be regulated or managed by the agency — not stopped.

Almost half of commuter shuttle riders said they would drive to work if the shuttles did not exist, according to a survey conducted by the SFMTA.

But the SFMTA’s report also revealed a still-tumultuous relationship between commuter shuttles and Muni buses.

Between the beginning of the Pilot Program in August 2014 and the end of May 2015, SFMTA enforcement officers issued 1,200 citations to shuttle buses, an average of 103 citations per month, according to the report. These citations were issued mostly for double parking and for nonpermitted use of Muni zones.

The SFMTA argued it posted signs legally allowing buses to use red-painted curbs, but Drury said that argument will be easily dismantled.

“You can’t post a sign and say state law doesn’t apply here,” Drury said. “Otherwise a city could post any old sign. Even though state law prohibits it, you can allow prostitution at 16th and Mission because there’s a sign.”

The trial begins today at 9:30 a.m. in San Francisco Superior Court.

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