With Santa Clara County cruising toward a November transportation tax measure, Palo Alto and eight other cities in the north county and west valley are rallying behind a new plan for how the $6 billion from the measure would be spent.
Officials from the cities have been holding meetings in recent months and lobbying the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) to pursue a regional strategy for transportation improvements, including a system-wide plan that would integrate mass-transit initiatives, highway fixes and community-level transit services. The measure, which is proposing a 1/2 cent sales-tax increase, is projected to raise about $6 billion over 30 years.
Now, the nine cities -- Palo Alto, Campbell, Cupertino, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Los Gatos, Mountain View, Saratoga and Sunnyvale -- are coalescing around a plan that they hope will raise their stature in negotiations with the VTA. The details of the conceptual plan were hashed out by city representatives during a series of meetings since late 2015. On Jan. 8, city officials agreed to adopt an "advocacy position" that each would take to his or her city council for approval. The Palo Alto council is scheduled to consider this plan on Feb. 8.
Much like a prior proposal from the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a business-advocacy organization that is leading the drive for the tax measure, the plan from the nine cities would devote $1.2 billion for the extension of BART to San Jose, a project that has eaten up roughly 80 percent of the revenue from the last two ballot measures. The cities' plan, however, also specifies other funding priorities. It would give preference to Caltrain improvements, allocating $1.3 billion: $400 million for projects that would increase the number of passengers the rail line could serve, such as longer trains and station enhancements, and $900 million for a countywide "grade-separation" program. The latter would submerge the train tracks under street crossings, or vice versa. It's an initiative that has emerged in the past year as one of Palo Alto's top transportation priorities.
In addition to the rail projects, the cities' funding plan would devote $1 billion to local streets and roads, funds that each jurisdiction could use for either maintenance or new projects. Another $1 billion would be used for improving county expressways, while $500 million would be allocated to the "streets and highways" category, which focuses on "regionally significant roadways," according to a new report from Palo Alto's Department of Planning and Community Environment.
In another departure from prior proposals, the cities coalition proposes to allocate $500 million for congestion relief and "transportation-demand management" programs, which aim to get people out of their cars and into other modes of transportation.
While the agreement between the cities allows each to make its own tweaks to the overall plan, the idea is to present a unified vision and increase the bargaining power of those jurisdictions that are farthest from the county's power center in San Jose.
The concept plan has already secured the unanimous endorsement of the Palo Alto council's Rail Committee, which voted on Jan. 27 to forward the discussion to the full council. At the meeting, members of the committee lauded the proposal, particularly its emphasis on Caltrain improvements and traffic-reduction measures. They acknowledged, however, that some of the spending categories (including "expressway") remain vague and are subject to further refinement.
Councilman Tom DuBois said he supports improving the interchange at Page Mill Road and Interstate 280 to accommodate more cars and create better bike pathways. Others on the council have been more skeptical about the county proposal to add new lanes on Page Mill, unless the additional lanes are carpool lanes.
Everyone on the Rail Committee agreed, however, that allocating funds from the tax measure for reducing the number of solo car commuters would be a good investment. DuBois recommended devoting $500 million -- or about 8 percent -- of the tax-measure funds to congestion relief. Transportation-demand management is cheaper than construction, he noted. Mayor Pat Burt concurred.
"We want to see those dollars used for congestion relief in a broad sense, with traffic management and transportation-demand-management measures, rather than merely expressway expansion and capacity," Burt said at the Rail Committee meeting.
Committee members agreed that some of the definitions in the concept plan will need to be hashed out further. They also agreed that changing the allotments at this point could jeopardize the coalition, which is why they unanimously approved the plan as presented.
"If there is a need for north county and west valley cities to show a unified front at this stage, knowing that this isn't written in stone, I'm comfortable with that," Committee Chair Marc Berman said.
If the full council concurs and adopts the coalition's position, it will follow in the footsteps of Mountain View's council, which voted 6-1 (with John Inks dissenting) to support the plan. The councils of Campbell and Cupertino are also scheduled to take up the subject in early February.
Whether all the councils get behind the tentative proposal, everyone expects further changes down the line. Councilman Greg Scharff, who in late January attended a meeting with officials from other coalition cities and with Carl Guardino, president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, said he expects the discussion in advance of the ballot measure to be an "iterative process." Yet he also called the funding plan "a really positive proposal" and urged his colleagues not to make any changes that would undermine the cities' negotiating position.
"We should strongly support (getting) as close as we can get to this as possible," Scharff said.