Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 22, 2014

City: Technology could ease parking problems — somewhat

Council supports plan to increase efficiency in downtown garages

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto, a city that takes pride in its high-tech savvy, is now looking to technology to help it solve the vexing problem of insufficient parking in its busy downtown.

The City Council embraced a plan on Monday to make downtown garages more efficient, authorizing staff on a 7-0 vote, with council members Pat Burt and Gail Price absent, to pursue a request for proposals to explore a range of technology resources.

The aids include "parking guidance systems" with vehicle-counting equipment that would tell drivers entering garages how much parking is available. The system, which city staff estimates will cost around $400,000, features loop detectors that add or subtract the number of spaces available as cars enter and leave the garages.

A more expensive and potentially more effective investment, called "access and revenue controls," enables the time-stamping of vehicles entering and exiting garages and can provide real-time information. It would also add flexibility to the parking process by allowing employees to transfer their parking permits and give visitors the option of paying to park beyond the regular three-hour time limit. The equipment has an estimated price tag of about $1.6 million, according to Jessica Sullivan, the city's parking manager.

City staff estimates that the streamlined management and efficiency brought by both types of technology would make available about 60 parking spaces out of the nearly 2,400 slots in downtown garages.

"It's really about more efficiently and effectively managing the inventory we have," Sullivan said.

Technology is one of many initiatives the city is pursuing in addressing what many people consider to be the city's most pressing problem.

Last week, the council endorsed by a 5-4 vote a contract to design a "satellite parking" site on Embarcadero Road, which would convey employees downtown by shuttle.

The city is planning to unveil early next year a "residential parking-permit program" that would set time limits for commuters' cars in downtown's residential neighborhoods

The city is also creating a downtown "transportation-demand management" (TDM) program aimed at getting drivers to switch to other modes of transportation. Last week, the council approved a $499,880 contract with the firm Moore Lacofano Goltsman to develop an association that would administer the TDM program.

Based on a recent count, staff estimates commuters take up 1,851 parking spaces in downtown. When combined, the new initiatives aim to cut this demand in half. About 966 workers would still need to park in neighborhoods, Sullivan said. This means the commuters would occupy about 18 percent of the spots on Palo Alto's residential streets.

"One program is not going to fix this problem. We really want to consider all of these initiatives and move them forward," she told the council.

The city will also consider adding parking meters to downtown streets and installing gates at downtown garages. It will also explore gate-less solutions such as license-plate readers and meters at garages, Sullivan said. The latter options were added into the mix after downtown businesses raised the concern that gates might be a deterrent for business, she said.

The council's vote Monday directs staff to solicit proposals for both the guidance and access-and-revenue control technologies simultaneously. The council also considered but ultimately rejected an alternative recommendation in which one request for proposals would be issued for the guidance systems, and another one would follow several months later for the revenue controls. That alternative would have allowed the city to move ahead faster with soliciting proposals because the request would not entail an integration of different technologies.

Councilman Greg Scharff defended the council's decision to pursue one comprehensive request for proposals.

It would be a "scandal," Scharff said, if the council immediately went ahead with one system only to have to rip it out or modify it months later when the next one comes online.

"We're in Palo Alto. We have high standards. We expect it to go well," he said. "I think we want to be thoughtful with this."

Councilman Larry Klein agreed and proposed that staff consider "tightening" the timeline for implementing the technologies. Under the current plan, the request for proposals would be issued within three to six months.

"This is a difficult problem that we have to act on," Klein said.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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