CA: Google Bus Backlash: SFMTA to Impose Fees on Tech Shuttles

Jan. 22--San Francisco's transportation agency on Tuesday imposed fees and restrictions on Google buses and other corporate commuter shuttles, but the move is unlikely to stop the protests or quell the animosity fueled by the sleek private buses.

The Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors voted 5-0 with one member absent to charge the corporate shuttles a fee of $1 per day per stop, prevent them from using some of the busiest Muni bus stops and require them to yield to public transit vehicles.

The vote came after a hearing that lasted more than three hours, with dozens of people lining up to speak. More than 100 people filled a City Hall meeting room and a spillover room where the hearing was broadcast.

The directors approved the 18-month test, which will begin in July, while acknowledging it won't satisfy many of those who blame the buses for boosting housing prices or changing the culture of San Francisco.

"There are a lot of issues balled up in this, and we've heard a lot of passionate arguments," said Director Malcolm Heinicke. "But this is a transportation issue."

Most agreed with Tom Nolan, the board chairman, who said: "It's better than what we have."

Under the program, the bus operators will pay $1 per stop per shuttle, an average of $80,000 to $100,000 per operator each year.

Opponents unconvinced

Critics, who staged yet another protest over the buses Tuesday morning, said the fees and regulations are not enough. They said the bus operators should pay much more -- or be banned from the streets of San Francisco. Supporters argued that the shuttles reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gases by taking cars off the streets and highways.

While at least a dozen Silicon Valley or Peninsula employers, most of them biotech or technology companies, deploy the shuttles, detractors have labeled the entire lot "Google buses" and targeted them as a symbol of gentrification and elitism that they say should be prohibited from using public transit bus stops or banned altogether.

The MTA hearing turned out a wide range of critics, from those who thought the $1-per-stop fee was too low to those who insisted the private buses were "class war."

Annie Gaus, a Fillmore resident, said she favored the new regulations but thought the fee should be higher to penalize the shuttles for illegally using Muni stops for years and for benefiting from public infrastructure.

"These companies are filthy rich," she said, "and we need to squeeze them for what they're worth."

No tax without vote

MTA officials have said that state law -- Proposition 218 -- limits the city to recovering its costs. A higher fee, or shuttle tax, a city attorney said, would require a vote of city residents.

A short distance from where the MTA met at City Hall and only hours earlier, protesters blocked tech buses carrying workers out of San Francisco, as they have a number of times. This time, just after 9 a.m., they blocked two shuttles from moving for about 45 minutes near Eighth and Market streets.

"At the very least, it gets the mayor's attention," said protester Tory Antoni, who lives in an apartment in the Mid-Market area, where he says an influx of well-paid tech workers has driven up rent costs. "We want to stop the evictions."

Series of protests

The blocking of tech buses is becoming a regular occurrence in the Bay Area. At least twice last month, buses were blocked at separate locations. In one case, a protest became destructive when someone slashed the tires and shattered a window of a bus in Oakland.

Tuesday's protest came a day after it became known that Google's public relations department had encouraged employees to attend the MTA meeting and gave them ready-made talking points. A handful of Google employees spoke at the hearing but declined to elaborate on their remarks.

Speakers told the board that they're being unfairly castigated for the city's problems when they've simply chosen to live in a place that they love. They also said they'd drive cars to work if the shuttles were shut down.

"We're not all billionaires," said Crystal Sholts, 34, a Google program manager who moved to the Mission in 2005 and doesn't own a car.

Drew Sherwood, 39, who works in operations for "a tech company" he declined to name, has lived in the Ingleside district for 20 years and has always worked on the Peninsula.

"I was a single-car commuter," he said, "until I was fortunate enough to find an employer who offers a shuttle."

UC Berkeley study

The meeting and protest came just days after the release of a study by two UC Berkeley graduate students who found that 40 percent of 130 riders surveyed said they would move closer to their jobs if the shuttles did not exist. But 48 percent said they would drive alone to their Silicon Valley jobs.

The study, "Riding First Class," by transportation planning students Danielle Dai and David Weinzimmer, also found that the typical shuttle rider is male, single, childless and about 30 years old with an income of $100,000 or more. About 85 percent rented their homes.

They said they chose to live in San Francisco because they preferred to live in walkable neighborhoods close to entertainment, culture and mass transit.

While the shuttles undoubtedly reduce the number of drivers heading to Silicon Valley, the study estimates that they also take 1,400 daily riders off public transportation.

Michael Cabanatuan and Kurtis Alexander are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. E-mail: mcabanatuan@sfchronicle.com, kalexander@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @ctuan, @kurtisalexander

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