The SFMTA could legally charge commuter shuttles a higher fee

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Under a newly approved pilot program that sanctions private commuter shuttles' use of San Francisco public bus stops, shuttle operators will be made to pay a fee of $1 per stop, per day.

Many community members have criticized this fee as being too low. In response, city officials have indicated that their hands are tied due to a state law prohibiting them from charging any more than that.

But we've just learned that under Proposition 218 – the state law that limits local governments' ability to impose new fees – the city has more discretion about how to calculate "cost recovery" than officials have let on.

“Prop. 218 is part of a legal scheme that doesn’t so much limit how we calculate cost recovery," said spokesperson Gabriel Zitrin, of the San Francisco City Attorney’s office, "but limits the city to cost recovery.”

At the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board meeting yesterday afternoon (Tue/21), Project Manager Carli Paine explained very clearly how her team had arrived at the $1 per stop, per day fee amount.

“We identified everything it would take to implement this program,” Paine said. After identifying all the program components, the agency “took the number of stop events and came up with a ‘per stop event’ cost.” Further clarifying, Paine said, “The kinds of costs we included are upfront costs, ongoing program costs.”

Even while remaining within the limitations of Prop. 218, however, the SFMTA could determine whether there are other costs associated with allowing private commuter shuttles to use public transportation infrastructure, beyond just the cost of issuing permits and placards.

It would be well within the legal rights of the city to recover identified costs, as long as they were not already being recovered elsewhere, according to Zitrin's explanation.

If shuttles’ use of public bus stops cause transit delays, for instance, what are the costs associated with those delays? More overtime pay for bus drivers?

Low-income kids getting to school late and missing breakfast? What’s the cost of that?

If rents rise in neighborhoods located along the shuttle routes (studies show they do), what are the associated costs of that phenomenon? What's the cost of displacement resulting from those higher rents, which can create a new class of commuters originating from the East Bay?

There are no simple answers, of course. But thanks to data and technology (two things Google seems to know an awful lot about) many costs associated with the private use of public infrastructure can likely be identified.

Zitrin said it was tough to say more without having the details. 

“As far as our office is concerned," he said, "we would need full detail on what costs are being recovered.”