Two engineers, three finance specialists, four local commissioners and six volunteers-at-large at large will soon tackle one of Palo Alto's most talked about and least understood problems -- an infrastructure backlog that city officials say has risen to more than half a billion dollars.
The mission of the new Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Task Force will be both broad and technical: to identify the most critical items on the city's long laundry list of crumbling roads and obsolete buildings and to possibly pave the way for a bond measure that would go to the voters as early as November 2011. The City Council will appoint the 15-member group in the next two months and will expect a report back in about a year.
What to do about the swelling infrastructure backlog has baffled city officials for years and has become a hotter topic now that Palo Alto is facing a string of budget deficits and program cuts. The city's proposed capital budget for 2011, which City Manager James Keene unveiled in April, estimates that the gap between how much the city needs to spend on infrastructure over the next 20 years and how much it plans to spend is currently about $510 million.
This "staggering estimate," Keene wrote in his budget transmittal letter, illustrates the severity of the city's structural budget challenges. Keene also mentioned in the letter that "potential options" for narrowing the gap "could include a bond measure."
The task force is expected to add some credibility to the bond-measure discussion. One of the group's first tasks will be to probe into the city's catalogue of obsolescence and figure out which items truly belong on the must-tackle list.
"If we do end up going to the public and looking for a bond, we want to be able to demonstrate to the public that we have vetted these projects and know that we are doing the best we can on getting the projects estimated," Councilwoman Karen Holman, who helped set the composition for the new group, said at the May 17 council meeting.
One question the committee will wrestle with is whether the long list of maintenance projects should be considered for a possible bond. The hodgepodge of projects described as "maintenance" account for $302 million in the backlog and include refurbishment of local streets, sidewalks, bridges, parks and some buildings.
The other $208 million includes a few big-ticket items such as a new Municipal Service Center ($93 million), the much discussed police headquarters (about $60 million); and an assortment of smaller projects (two fire stations, a new animal shelter and major improvements to Charleston and Arastradero road corridors).
Councilman Greg Schmid argued the city does a decent enough job maintaining its streets and said the maintenance projects should not be considered by the task force. Including routine maintenance on a bond measure could undermine the council's credibility when it asks the community to help finance more substantive items, Schmid said.
Schmid's council colleagues expressed some official "concern" about using bond money for routine maintenance but decided to let the task force hash the issue out. Greg Scharff called paying for routine maintenance through a bond a "bad business practice" but said a bond should be used for major renovations or refurbishments.
"Part of the whole purpose of the bond measure is to really get back on track where we start to fix everything, come up with a plan that works and maintain it properly," Scharff said.
The council's last attempt to pass a bond measure sailed through in November 2008, when more than two-thirds of Palo Alto voters approved a $76 million bond to rebuild three local libraries.
Keene warned the council that many of the city's older streets are in major disrepair and would not be fixed through the city's General Fund, which allocates about $10 million per year for infrastructure. The proposed budget allocates $3.8 million for street maintenance in fiscal year 2011, which begins July 1. This is far less than is needed to close an "unfunded backlog" in street repairs that the city estimated to be about $13.7 million between fiscal years 2008 and 2013.
"I personally think there is a need for major reinvestment in some of our streets in the city that I don't think are ever going to get fixed through our existing programs or routine maintenance," Keene said. "Especially when you have old concrete streets that need major reconstruction."
Given the technical and expansive nature of the task force's mission, the council decided that the group should include at least two members with financial backgrounds and three engineers or design specialists. The task force would also include four members of local commissions -- one each from the Planning and Transportation Commission, the Parks and Recreation Commission, the Historic Resources Board and the Utilities Advisory Commission. Each commission would select its own representative to participate in the task force.
The committee would also include six "at large" members. The members would be selected by the City Council, which would form three three-member groups to conduct the interviews. Keene said the group would consider both the city's official backlog list and any other projects that should be on the list but aren't.
"Anything we're going to do is going to require going to the public in some fashion to raise money," Keene told the council. "We better have it right in every way -- in analysis, in selection and in what's actually on any sort of final list."