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Silicon Valley firms to pay fee for commuter shuttles amid tech backlash

Source: Reuters - Wed, 22 Jan 2014 04:00 GMT
Author: Reuters
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By Alexei Oreskovic

SAN FRANCISCO, Jan 21 (Reuters) - San Francisco's transportation agency agreed on Tuesday to charge Google Inc , Apple Inc and other tech companies $1 every time one of their commuter shuttles uses a public bus stop, in a deal that seems unlikely to end the recent wave of technology industry-backlash among some residents.

The commuter buses take about 17,000 passengers a day from their homes in San Francisco to dozens of technology companies based in Silicon Valley, south of the city.

The 18-month pilot program, which the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency unanimously approved, comes as the buses have become high-profile targets to activists upset about rising housing prices.

Hours before the meeting on Tuesday, protesters blocked two technology company buses in San Francisco, according to media reports. Several of Google's buses have been blocked by protesters in recent weeks, including an incident in Oakland in which the window of a Google bus was shattered.

While many critics say the private "luxury buses" should pay, they blasted the current program as grossly insufficient.

"Charging $1 per bus per stop is a joke," said Cynthia Crews, a representative of the San Francisco League of Pissed-Off Voters, one of roughly three dozen members of the public who commented on the proposal at the meeting.

The city estimates the fee will raise $100,000 per company that uses the buses, or about $1.5 million total.

Several Google employees as well as employees who said they worked for shuttle companies appeared before the board to voice support for the pilot program. Some noted they would otherwise be forced to drive a car to work, contributing to traffic and harming the environment.

Google said it would work with the transportation agency on its shared goal of providing efficient transportation around San Francisco.

"We believe the pilot program is a critical step in that direction," the company said in an email.

Apple and Facebook did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The buses have become among the most visible symbols of what some complain is the technology-driven gentrification of San Francisco, with young, well-paid tech workers forcing out less affluent residents. In addition, critics say some city policies, including tax breaks, are too generous to the technology industry.

"I have seen shuttle buses running through my neighborhood for years using regular stops and getting away with it while regular drivers are fined for using MUNI stops," said a woman speaking to the board who described herself as a community volunteer. Some noted that the fine for parking in a public bus zone is $271, and suggested that the city collect that amount for all the past years the buses have used the bus zones.

Until now, the tech companies such as Google, Facebook Inc and Apple have not paid San Francisco for the right to use public bus zones when they pick up and drop off their employees.

State law forbids the city from collecting more than the cost of providing the service, officials said. But Crews, of the San Francisco League of Pissed-Off Voters, said the city could find other ways to get a greater payment from the companies.

Members of the transportation board acknowledged that the buses had become caught up in a broader debate about housing afford ability and cost of living, which they said was beyond the scope of their work.

"At the end of the day this is a transit issue and we're better off with something than nothing," said Malcolm Heinicke, the board's director.

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