No one disputes the idea that traffic congestion is one of Palo Alto's most urgent and mystifying priorities.
But as the City Council approved its list of official priorities for 2016 on Saturday afternoon, the big question was whether the topic will stand alone or get tied together with related issues of housing and parking.
After a lengthy debate, the council decided by a 5-4 vote to go with the latter approach as it approved a priority list that looks much like the one from 2015. The main difference is that the city's top priority from 2015, which pertains to the "built environment," now specifies that there will be a "special emphasis on mobility."
In addition to that priority, which now reads "Built environment: housing, parking and livability with particular emphasis on mobility," there are three holdovers from 2015: infrastructure; healthy city and healthy community; and completion of the Comprehensive Plan, with special focus from the council.
Everyone agreed that those three remain pertinent in the new year, though the council debated whether "infrastructure" should now be de-emphasized or stuck under the "built environment" umbrella because the projects it connotes are already in the works.
The big point of debate was whether mobility should stand alone as a city priority, a change proposed by Vice Mayor Greg Scharff and supported by Mayor Pat Burt and Councilmen Marc Berman and Cory Wolbach.
"I think mobility is what people really want us to focus on and fix," Scharff said.
The comment was made minutes after City Auditor Harriet Richardson presented to the council the results of the latest National Citizens Survey, which showed rising angst in the community around the issue of transportation. Since 2010, the number of people who rated traffic flow on local streets as "good" or "excellent" dropped from 47 to 31 percent, while proportion giving these two ratings to "ease of travel by car" went from 66 percent to 44 percent. When asked about ease of travel by public transportation, only 26 percent gave the city high marks, down from 62 percent in 2010.
City Manager James Keene noted that these problems aren't unique to Palo Alto. Keene said he rarely travels to the East Bay now because the traffic has gotten so bad.
"It's not like we get out of Palo Alto and it's smooth sailing to Mountain View or Redwood City," Keene said. "The situation has gotten worse all over the Bay Area."
Burt concurred with Scharff's idea to make mobility a separate priority. Though he acknowledged that it's connected to other land-use issues, there is nothing unusual about different priorities having linkages between them, he said.
"When we look at the community survey and what we perceive as what's going on with today's community and subregionally, the top problem that's been identified is transportation," Burt said.
Making transportation a subset of the built community, he argued, would send a mixed signal.
"I just think it stands as its own priority and I think the community is going to question why we're not placing as one of our priorities the thing that's most important to the community at this time."
Berman and Wolbach also indicated that they would support a motion from Scharff to make mobility a separate priority. Schmid disagreed and argued that separating mobility from the other issues would obscure the reasons for why the traffic has gotten so bad.
"Is the problem transportation, or is the problem how we created that mobility issue?" Schmid asked. "It seems to me in our Comprehensive Plan we are trying to deal with the issue of development caps, jobs, housing, balances or imbalances and mobility as a manifestation of this deeper problem."
Tom DuBois, Karen Holman, Eric Filseth and Liz Kniss all concurred that the issue of mobility, while critical, is so intertwined with other land-use issues that they should be kept together and supported Schmid's substitute motion, which prevailed by a single vote.
Council members also offered their own thoughts on issues that should demand more attention from the council and staff. For Wolbach, housing ranked high on the list.
"You sometimes hear the idea that we all know, we've always known that Palo Alto has always been a very expensive place," Wolbach said. "But according to our residents and their comments about housing costs, they are not impressed."
Wolbach cited the statistics from Richardson's presentation, showing the median household income increasing by about 20 percent between 2010 and 2015. In the same period, the price of a median single-family home went up by 60 percent.
"Housing costs have increased three times the rate of income in Palo Alto," Wolbach said. "If you're trying to switch from one residents in Palo Alto to another maybe trying to downsize that makes it very difficult to do that."
After setting its priorities, the council set its attention to prioritizing the roughly 70 major projects on city staff's growing workload. To determine which projects should be ranked highest, council members placed green stickers on sheets of paper labeled with those projects they see as most important. Not surprisingly, transportation once again dominated the list.
After each council members distributed his or her 24 stickers, the top vote-getter was "grade separation" on rail tracks (submerging the rail tracks under the crossing streets, or vice versa), which received seven stickers. Projects that got six stickers were local transportation funding; traffic signal timing; the bike and pedestrian master plan; the implementation of the Housing Element; the Sustainability and Climate Action Plan; and the new public-safety building.