Why Muni won’t earn a dime off the tech buses

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SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin at a Monday press conference
Photo by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Every day mammoth private buses squeeze into San Francisco public bus stops, and every day they contribute to the delay of countless Muni buses. Riders walk around the Google, Apple and Genentech luxury rides and into the street to board their grimy, underfunded public transit system. 

Now finally, the mayor has announced the near-approaching implementation of a pilot program to permit and regulate the tech industry’s private coaches. If approved by a vote from the SFMTA Board of Directors on Jan. 21, the pilot will begin. The only catch is, though they’ll charge those companies for the cost of implementing the program, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency won't make any money off of the tech shuttles.

The chronically underfunded Muni won’t get a lift from Google. Yesterday (Mon/6) we finally got an explanation as to why.

On the 8th floor of the SFMTA offices, the transit agency’s director Ed Reiskin told reporters that his hands were tied by California Proposition 218, which limits what new revenue municipalities can raise without voter approval.

“Only the voters of San Francisco can enact a tax that generates excess revenue,” he said. 

“This isn’t new,” Reiskin said, but he’s only half right. Though Prop. 218 was passed in 1996, this is the first time anyone at the MTA has touted it as a reason not to profit off of the tech shuttles.

We even asked Mayor Ed Lee this question just a month ago, and got a two-minute response that did not once include Prop. 218

Part of this might have to do with the nebulous quality of Prop. 218. An implementation guide from the California Budget Analyst office puts it this way: “Proposition 218's requirements span a large spectrum, including local initiatives, water standby charges, legal standards of proof, election procedures, and the calculation and use of sewer assessment revenues. Although the measure is quite detailed in many respects, some important provisions are not completely clear.”

The waters of Proposition 218 are murky: is the government charging for the use of Muni stops a fee or a tax? In that grey area lies the answer on whether the city truly can’t charge tech buses to help fix Muni, or if this is just political cover for a government who doesn’t want to piss off tech.

Tellingly, that’s pretty much what Reiskin said.

“There’s a lot of benefit these services (buses) are bringing to San Francisco,” Reiskin told us after the press conference. “We wanted to resolve the conflicts without killing the benefit.”

“I imagine if we sat down with them and said ‘we wanna start taxing you guys’ they’d say ‘screw it, we don’t want to do the shuttles.’”

The 18-month pilot will recoup an estimated $1.5 million, the estimated cost of the project, according to the SFMTA. The project would give approval for use of 200 Muni stops by private shutle providers, out of 2,500 Muni stops in the system. We’ve reached out to California’s budget analyst office to dig into Proposition 218.