EMERYVILLE -- It's been a beloved perk for people who live, work or shop in Emeryville: a free shuttle that stops nearly everywhere in the compact city, from the Pixar animation studio to the IKEA store.
Now, one businessman's revolt is threatening to halt the fleet of distinctive purple-and-yellow buses that carry commuters around the city. Businesses have bankrolled the Emery Go-Round for two decades, but a few are looking at its 2016 legal expiration date as a chance to cut loose.
"I'm not so much against the bus system, I just don't want to pay $60,000 because I don't use the thing at all," said Francis Collins, a developer fighting to dismantle the corporate-funded bus authority. "I don't use the dumb thing, much less care about it."
The 71-year-old commercial property owner has infuriated Emeryville residents, civic leaders and a large segment of the business community by calling into question the future of a cherished transit service in the traffic-clogged city.
"I cannot imagine Emeryville without the shuttle," said Trudy Presser, executive director of the partnership that governs the bus system. "I just can't even imagine. The infrastructure cannot support it, if this was converted to cars."
Seventeen shuttle buses ferry about 5,600 riders each day on two main loops and a third rush hour express line, all of which connect the city to the MacArthur BART station in Oakland. That 1-mile drive from BART to the Emeryville border is a critical link for a city whose daytime workforce of nearly 30,000 dwarfs its resident population of about 10,000.
But the shuttle's popularity, and cost, grows annually with each new biotech complex and condominium development crowding the Emeryville skyline. The Emery Go-Round estimates it had 1.6 million boardings last year.
Collins wants city leaders to ask voters for a sales tax hike or find another way to subsidize the bus system or make riders pay. If not, he has threatened to sue, believing the funding mechanism is "illegal and unconstitutional." City leaders oppose the sales tax, which would require the support of two-thirds of voters, but they have launched a task force to investigate other alternatives.
"My position is quite clear: I'm paying a tax I don't think I should be paying and it's not fair to me," Collins said. "Most people think it's a public bus system, like someone's entitled to it. They have no idea where it's coming from. Now they're realizing the people who pay for it might not want to pay for it."
Founded in 1996 when a few big businesses collaborated with the city on a way to get employees to work, the no-fare shuttle system was fortified in 2001 when commercial property owners voted to tax themselves through a business improvement district. Other business districts, from San Leandro to Mountain View and around the country, have since adopted the model.
Property owners pay a fee for every square foot of commercial real estate they occupy. Residential property owners pay nothing, except for those who agreed to contribute as a condition of being able to build in the city. The seven biggest funders -- a group that includes drug company Novartis, Pixar, IKEA, the Bay Street mall and several high-rise office developers -- hold the majority of seats on the governing board of the Emeryville Transportation Management Association.
The biggest payer, Wareham Development, contributed nearly $338,000 to running the shuttle last year.
"We're in the business of building places where people work," said Wareham's Geoffrey Sears, who also presides over the shuttle board. "If the city is convenient to get to, our buildings sitting in it are convenient to get to. That's attractive."
Collins upset the status quo and sought more transparency when he won a seat on the board last year to represent all the other payers, a group that together contributes 60 percent of the $2.8 million assessment. Collins, who lives in rural Sonoma County, says he pays about $46,000.
The shuttle district sunsets in 2016 unless a majority of paying members vote to reauthorize it. Collins said he is determined to make the system more equitable or shut it down.
He has allied with a former mayor, Ken Bukowski, who two years ago formed the Emeryville Property Owners Association. The organization claims to represent small and midsize property owners, such as Collins, whose older brick buildings and converted warehouses -- leftovers from Emeryville's industrial past -- are concentrated in the northwest section of the 1.8-square-mile city. Unlike the stores and offices near the congested waterfront, most of those inland properties have few employees and visitors, so the owners have little use for the Emery Go-Round.
"People don't like it, they don't like the way it's run, they don't like anything about it," Collins said.
But the campaign to scuttle the shuttle is unpopular in the broader Emeryville business community, whose biggest players are all enthusiastic backers of a system that pleases their employees and customers. Many businesses also fear a sales tax could hurt Emeryville's draw as a regional shopping hub.
"Francis is a longtime property owner, he has every right to his opinion, but it's clearly a minority opinion," said Bob Canter, president of the Emeryville Chamber of Commerce.
On a recent afternoon, most Go-Round riders said they were unaware of the behind-the-scenes battle over how to sustain the shuttle in the coming years.
Civic leaders, however, got a taste of what a loss of the Emery Go-Round could mean when the bus service abruptly stopped picking up riders in front of the vast but isolated Watergate condominium complex near the Emeryville Marina last year. The shuttle authority blamed the city for a road reconfiguration that made bus turns unsafe.
A mass of outraged residents, some of them carless elders, crowded City Hall and service was restored, but it fueled a debate over whether Watergate's 2,500 residents deserve their own stop since they do not pay for the bus. For many Emeryville residents, losing the shuttle is unthinkable. Some say they wouldn't have moved here without it.
"I know a lot of people, we all love Emery Go-Round," said Watergate resident Grace Zhang, 23, as she waited for the bus Wednesday. "Don't stop it."
The tax: Emeryville's free shuttle is funded through a tax on the city's commercial property owners. Owners are assessed based on how much square footage they occupy. Residential property owners do not pay into the system, with the exception of some newer developments whose owners agreed to contribute as a condition of being able to build in the city.
Who governs: The seven companies that pay the most to run the Emery Go-Round also hold seats on the board that governs the shuttle system. An eighth seat is held by a representative for all the other businesses. A ninth public seat is held by the Emeryville Chamber of Commerce.
Top seven corporate funders in 2013:
Wareham Development (real estate): $337,568
Novartis (pharmaceutical): $234,791
LBA Realty (real estate): $211,243
Bay Street (retail mall): $109,210
Pixar (animation): $92,867
Hines (real estate): $88,275
IKEA (furniture store): $67,880
Top seven corporate members: $1,141,834 (40 percent)
All other payers: $1,698,380 (60 percent)
Total billed assessments: $2,840,214