The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is an vital organization in The City’s efforts to combat climate change and income inequality. In its 2016 Annual Report, the SFMTA announced a 10 percent increase in service, daily ridership of 725,000 and one-year reductions of nearly 45 percent in carbon emissions.
Moreover, according to the Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force Report of 2009, only two percent of all energy used in San Francisco at that time was used to power Muni, Caltrain and BART. It seems, therefore, that the SFMTA could be an even more useful tool in San Francisco’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions — if we could expand the system.
Despite the booming economy, the agency faces annual budget shortfalls — $13.5 million for FY 2017; $14.3 million for FY 2018 — daily obstacles to the smooth operation of its clean air vehicles and competition for riders.
In recent years, private, for-profit carriers that The City doesn’t regulate or regulates loosely, and that exclude many categories of riders, have proliferated on local streets: the technology shuttle buses, aka “Google” buses; transportation network companies (TNCs), such as Uber and Lyft, regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission; and now private transportation vehicles (PTVs).
There is only one PTV company in San Francisco: Chariot, owned by Ford. Chariot operates about 100 Ford Transit Wagons, according to its website, on around 10 fixed routes during commute hours. Ford Transit Wagons get about 14 mpg on city streets and can carry about 14 passengers, but the vehicles do not seem to be wheelchair or child accessible. They have been seen and photographed with frequency operating in public bus stops, double-parking to pick up and discharge passengers and stopping in crosswalks. And unlike Muni, which is required by federal law to service all neighborhoods equitably, Chariot only serves particular neighborhoods.
On Tuesday, the SFMTA Board of Directors will consider legislation to create a permit system to regulate Chariot and other PTVs. The agency could ban PTVs outright, but the legislation instead proposes to grandfather in its existing routes (even the ones that mimic the 1 California, 38 Geary and other Muni routes), ban any new routes that substantially mimic Muni routes and charge minimal regulatory fees.
But if the Board of Directors chooses to pass the legislation, it should also charge each PTV fair-market value for use of government property, in this case city streets.
This is legal. In fact, in 2012 and 2013, local cab drivers sued the SFMTA over the cost of medallions (permits to operate taxis) arguing that the medallion fee — $250,000 — was an illegal tax. A legal brief, signed by City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Deputy City Attorney Wade Snodgrass, made the winning argument that the medallion “grants its holder the ‘special privilege’ of ‘us[ing] … public streets for private enterprise.” Elsewhere, they wrote: “California law … [authorizes] local government entities to allow the private use of public property, and to sell or lease public property, at market rates … in order to protect the public fisc.” In fact, in 2010 town hall meetings, the proposed medallion fee was identified as a source of revenue to support the SFMTA. But those medallion fees have dropped into negative numbers because of the competition from TNCs.
The Board of Directors must include fair-market charges for every PTV — and shuttle bus — for “[t]he right to use streets as a place of business for private gain.”
Susan Vaughan is a local transportation advocate.