Right now, they are a group of downtown stakeholders and transportation experts debating pilot programs and funding structures. Sometime next year, the group is slated to become a full-fledged nonprofit dedicated to tackling the city's biggest problem: traffic.
But what's the best route between the origin and the destination? That's the question for the steering committee of the budding Transportation Management Association (TMA), a group of downtown Palo Alto stakeholders whose goal is to steer people away from their cars and toward other modes of transportation.
So far, the group's activities have been underwritten by the city, with the City Council approving $500,000 last year for a consulting contract to get the organization going. Given the high priority that the city has given to traffic and parking, public funds will surely play a role in future programs, including an expanded city shuttle system and new garages. Just last month, the council's Finance Committee agreed to earmark a special $500,000 contingency fund in next year's budget specifically for transportation improvements.
Yet the council and city staff also expect the organization to eventually become an independent, self-sustaining entity, paid for by the employers who benefit from its services. The need for the group to become an actual nonprofit is important, City Manager James Keene told the Weekly last week, so that the group has structure.
"Now, we have a lot of well-intentioned people meeting and talking about possibilities, but how to leverage them and scale them up that is still the core challenge," Keene said. "I really feel that over the next six to eight months, we've got to make some decisions within the TMA and get some things going."
Wendy Silvani, the consultant hired to help launch the TMA, made a similar point at the steering committee's Oct. 8 meeting, where the group was discussing its transition into a nonprofit.
"We're now in never-never land," Silvani said. "We're not an organization yet and we don't exist. But we'd like to start doing things and making recommendations and going to the council and collecting money."
Applying for nonprofit status with the Internal Revenue Service is expected to extend through next year. In the meantime, the group has to plan for its long-term sustenance. Everyone knows that buy-in from the city won't be enough to guarantee success. Support from downtown businesses will also prove crucial for the TMA. So far, area employers have been enthusiastic about engaging in discussions about solving downtown's parking problems, Silvani told the Weekly. But which businesses should pay, and how much? And to what extent should the group rely on public funds, either from the City Council or from other governmental agencies?
These questions were at the center of the Oct. 8 discussion. Silvani warmed up the crowd with math, calculating how much the group could raise if all the large downtown companies were asked to pay one fee (a theoretical $500) and smaller companies would be charged a correspondingly smaller fee (going on a scale down to $50). Based on the roughly 800 businesses, this formula would raise about $60,000 annually, enough for a part-time TMA manager, Silvani said. A different scheme, which charges offices more and retail less along a similar sliding scale, could bring in between $80,000 and $114,000 under the preliminary breakdown.
The steering committee had plenty of concerns with these numbers. Bob McGrew, of Palantir, suggested that the TMA focus mainly on large employers and noted that it would be too difficult and expensive to collect $50 fees from downtown's nearly 700 small businesses. Brian Shaw, of Stanford University, said he believed the numbers are conservative and argued that the mission of the TMA is so important to local employees that they would be willing to contribute greater sums.
Russ Cohen, executive director of the Palo Alto Downtown Business and Professional Association, took the opposite view. Another fee for businesses is problematic, he said, no matter how great the benefits are purported to be. Barbara Gross, representing the Garden Court Hotel, agreed.
"I think the idea of a membership is a non-starter," Gross said. "I think it will cause a negative reaction. I feel like the TMA would be far more successful if we were to say: The city is funding this, the large businesses are funding this. ... It's up to the TMA to grow this (program) and once you see the benefit, you can join or pay for the services we're offering."
Gross favored ongoing investment from the city.
"There needs to be a public-private partnership because this is becoming a policy issue to help downtown survive its success," Gross said. "I think that's what the businesses need to see: that the burden isn't only on the businesses because the benefit is to the city as well."
In the end, the group directed Silvani to explore interim steps that the group can take before it becomes a standalone nonprofit. These included looking into fiscal sponsorships (an arrangement in which a different foundation or nonprofit manages the TMA's accounting) or a partnership with the Downtown Business and Professional Association.
While becoming a viable nonprofit is one challenge for the group, gaining visibility is another. For that, the new organization may lean on a service that has long been underused in Palo Alto: the city-funded shuttle program. The quaint shuttles, adorned with faces of City of Palo Alto employees, currently run on three routes: the Crosstown, the Embarcadero and the East Palo Alto (which is subsidized in large part by East Palo Alto).
Despite worsening traffic congestion, shuttle ridership has been rather moribund. Between 2012 and 2013, ridership actually declined on both the Crosstown and Embarcadero shuttles by 0.2 and 13.6 percent, respectively. The East Palo Alto shuttle, which made its debut in July 2014, also remains underused, Silvani noted.
Over the past year, the council has been looking for ways to expand the program and briefly considered launching a new West Shuttle route between south Palo Alto and north Palo Alto destinations such as University Avenue and Stanford Shopping Center. Initially, the city was hoping to add a Mountain View connection and enlist some employers in that city to help fund the project. When the companies declined to participate, the city scrapped the new route and chose instead to pursue a five-year plan for the shuttle network. In August, city Transportation Planning Manager Jessica Sullivan told the council that the new study would "give us a comprehensive strategy in designing the shuttle, rather than bringing forward a piecemeal route."
"Our goal is to make the shuttle a really important part of the mobile services here in Palo Alto," Sullivan said.
Under the council's vision, the city would invest in the initial rollout of the new and expanded shuttle system. Ultimately, however, it would be the TMA that will market and manage the service.
During the Oct. 8 meeting, the steering committee debated expanding the shuttle service and the TMA's ultimate role in the system. Shaw, who established numerous TMA programs in Atlanta before joining Stanford, questioned whether city shuttles will truly be useful for a downtown that is already positioned next to the Caltrain station. He noted that in Georgia the train was three miles from the employment district and shuttles made sense.
"You already have a train in your backyard," Shaw said. "So that's the question: What will the shuttle actually do that you need it to do today?"
But others argued that an enhanced shuttle system would give the TMA something tangible a signature project that will demonstrate the TMA's value to the community. Rob George, general manager of Philz Coffee, suggested a plan in which employees who live on the east side of U.S. Highway 101 could park in one of the sprawling parking lots around IKEA in East Palo Alto and then get shuttled to downtown Palo Alto.
Brandon Harrington, who heads Google's transportation-management program, acknowledged that an expanded shuttle program would be a "heavy lift" for the nascent organization but also called it "the best opportunity for the TMA" to show its value to the businesses. Mountain View's TMA, he said, set up its shuttle program fairly quickly.
Sullivan noted that the Palo Alto is already exploring ways to improve the shuttle system. Enhancing the service, rebranding it and once it's successful tying it to the TMA could allow the new group to point to a visible achievement.
"I'm looking at it as a branding mechanism as much as anything else," Sullivan said.