Now that they've become a target for Occupy protesters and a symbol of rapacious, tech-fueled gentrification in San Francisco, corporate shuttles are going to have to pay to use public bus stops.
After months of hearing commuters grouse about the oversized, WiFi-equipped coaches -- which not only clog traffic, but also force Muni riders to board public buses in the middle of the street -- Mayor Ed Lee has launched a pilot program to charge companies like Bauer's and Compass Transportation for the hundreds of stops they commandeer each day.
That's certainly a nice gesture to taxpayers and public transit users. But it will hardly satisfy the Mission District protesters who recently called for Google et al. to disgorge $1 billion.
It turns out there's a rub: California Proposition 218 -- which voters passed in 1996 -- prevents municipal agencies from charging fees to companies and then funneling the cash back into city coffers. That's technically a tax, and per Prop. 218, the city can't institute a tax without garnering voter approval.
Which means the SFMTA can't create a fee structure that goes beyond administering the cost of the program. Any revenues it recoups from bus stop rental will just go back to funding the pilot program, which is more or less like water circulating within a fountain.
That doesn't mean the rental fees are meaningless. The proposed program will restrict the number of bus stops that tech charters use -- to 200, out of the 2,500 in the Muni system. It will force shuttles to cede space to Muni, install identification placards, and share location data to allow SFMTA to track participating buses, in the event of a commuter complaint.
Supervisor Scott Wiener, who recently introduced a proposal to tax sugary beverages, stoutly defends the shuttle fees program. "It's not a fee for the sake of a fee," he argues. "It will fund the MTA's management of a better shuttle system."
In other words, the city can't impose a tax on the charters to fund sunshine and playgrounds and homeless shelters, but it can at least burden them with rules. In Wiener's view, Google buses aren't the same as soda -- you can't slurp money from one as you can from the other. (Also, Wiener notes, municipalities' ability to glean money from vehicles is severely limited).
Whatever the case, if San Franciscans had hoped to bleed Google for all it's worth, they may be sorely disappointed.
Joe Eskenazi contributed to this report.