Tech Buses Back Under Fire for ‘Sweetheart’ Deal

The paltry sums tech buses pay for use of public stops are back in the news, as the SFMTA contemplates charging them a measly 34 cents more.

If you stop a vehicle smack-dab in a Muni bus zone, you will be subject to a $288 ticket. But tech buses that shuttle employees to Silicon Valley giants like Apple, Facebook, and Google pay a mere $7.31 for that very same stop. This large discrepancy is part of a new NBC Bay Area investigation into tech buses, as the SFMTA is mulling an increase to the fees they charge the high-tech commuter shuttles.

That fee increase is a whopping 34 cents per tech bus shuttle stop. This strikes taxi drivers as skimpy, since they pay $250,000 a pop for a prized taxi medallion.

“Seems a little like cab drivers are the cash cow and the tech industry is the sacred cow,” Green Cab co-owner Mark Gruberg tells NBC Bay Area. “They’re coddling [tech buses] in a way, because they’re not applying the same standards that they did to taxis.”

There are about 400 of these double-decker commuter shuttle buses in use daily here in San Francisco. But SFMTA argues they’re getting good value from these private companies for their use of the public bus stops.

“We’re collecting $6 million a year from these operators,” SFMTA director Tom Maguire tells NBC Bay Area’s Bigad Shaban. “The fact that we are generating $6 million of permit fee revenue for a mode of transportation that carries about 10,000 people a day shows that we’ve actually taken a very strong approach to regulation.”

He also notes that the shuttle companies and tech firms have voluntarily opted into a program to pay for using the stops.

“There’s nothing I could do if a shuttle operator decided tomorrow that they were going to drop out of the program, stop sending us checks, and start operating on narrow hilly streets in Noe Valley or Cow Hollow,” Maguire says. “We could give them parking tickets, but we could never issue parking tickets that would be anywhere close to what they’re paying in permit fees.”

The shuttles do still get parking tickets. A 2016 NBC Bay Area analysis found that SFMTA issued 800 citations to tech buses over a two-year period, for obstructing traffic or blocking bus zones or bike lanes. Last year, the firms were charged about $900,000 for these violations.

To step up this enforcement, SFMTA is considering a 34 cent per-stop fee increase for each tech bus. The Board of Supervisors has until June 30 to approve or deny that plan, and one supervisor wants to see a much larger increase.

“I have been asking the last three years for SFMTA to justify how they come up with cost recovery,” Sup. Jane Kim tells the station. “I’ve often asked why a shuttle bus can use a public bus stop and pay $7 a stop and why a mother dropping off her kids to school gets a $100-plus ticket when using the same bus stop.”

But local policy association called Bay Area Council argues that the current arrangement makes good financial and environmental sense.

“The shuttles are eliminating 2 million single‐passenger car trips annually from San Francisco’s congested streets and avoiding 2,000 metric tons of harmful tailpipe emissions,” Council spokesperson Rufus Jeffris said in a statement. “And the companies that provide this important service are doing it at their own expense, to the tune of millions of dollars a year.”

Depending on who you ask (and whether they work in tech), the tech buses are either a symbol of Bay Area income inequality or a convenient way to have 10,000 less cars on the road. In fact, they are both of these things — which is why the wheels of this tech bus debate go round and round once again.

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