Seeking to kick the city's traffic-reduction efforts into a higher gear, the Palo Alto City Council on Monday night established a new committee that could set the stage for a local tax measure in November.
The goal of the new ad hoc committee will be to direct the city's polling efforts in the coming months and help the full council determine whether to place a tax measure targeting transportation improvements on the November ballot.
The council has until early July to determine whether to proceed with the local ballot measure and to decide what type of tax to proceed with. Though several members, most notably Councilman Greg Schmid, said they support a business tax, most agreed that it's too early to make a determination at this time, in lieu of polling data.
The new committee will try to change that. By creating the new four-member committee and authorizing Mayor Pat Burt to appoint its members, the council signaled its desire to accelerate the city's effort to reduce the single-occupancy-vehicle rate, particularly in the downtown area.
Earlier this year, the council added transportation to its list of top annual priorities and on Monday it heard an update from the city's Transportation Management Association (TMA), a new nonprofit tasked with reducing the number of solo drivers in downtown by 30 percent.
The group plans to announce its existence to the broader downtown community in the months ahead by unveiling three pilot programs: Caltrain pass subsidies for low-income workers; a carpooling service facilitated by the company Scoop; and a marketing effort aimed at adding ridership to the city's shuttle program. The group also plans to follow up on last year's survey of downtown commuters by sponsoring another survey later this year.
If the council proceeds with a November tax measure, the TMA would be a chief beneficiary. Though the council lauded the group's efforts to date, several members were underwhelmed by the group's plans and ambitions and urged its members to think bigger both in terms of new programs and in terms of the type of assistance it should expect from the city. Vice Mayor Greg Scharff was among them. After hearing that the TMA's six board members (all of them downtown employers) contributed only $35,050 toward the nonprofit, Scharff wondered why the amount was so paltry (the largest three employers on the board, Google, Palantir and the City, contributed $10,000 each; medium-sized businesses Garden Court Hotel and IDEO contributed $2,500 each; the sole small business on the board, Philz Coffee, contributed $50).
"Really? $50? Do I need to say more?" Scharff said, calling the group "really underfunded."
"My concern really is that I'm not sure there's a strong commitment to get this done, because the finances don't make sense to me in this presentation. In my experience, the money is what drives things to happen," he said.
When it comes to the TMA, Scharff said the city shouldn't "paper over the problem" but "go big on this" and try to solve it. Burt and Councilwoman Karen Holman both agreed, with each criticizing the TMA for basing its plans on constraints that may not exist. Holman complained about a "very slow uptick or ramp up on the program."
"The TMA is a great opportunity. It's also not just an exercise. It's serious business with possibly positive outcomes that can lead us into a future that's better than where we are now," Holman said.
Yet council members also said they were pleased to see the group finally up and running after a year of deliberations by a steering committee of stakeholders.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who in 2014 was one of the authors of a memo urging a creation of the TMA, said she was "delighted" by the group's existence, which she said signals that "something is on the way." She acknowledged, however, that the group will probably be very dependent on public contributions for the next two or three years.
"This is very much something that's been promoted by us and we think it will make a big difference for the residents of our town," Kniss said.
Members generally agreed that more city funds would be necessary to truly make the group a success. Yet they also recognized that there is a big risk in moving ahead with a tax measure this year. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is moving ahead with its own countywide transportation-tax measure in November a 1/2 cent sales tax increase that is projected to bring in about $6 billion for an extension of BART to San Jose; Caltrain improvements; seed funding for "grade separation" (under- and overpasses at Caltrain crossings); various highway and expressway projects; and local transportation programs.
Given the significance of the countywide measure, Scharff stressed the importance of polling the populace, and ensuring that the local measure would not undermine the countywide one.
"Polling is the first thing we do," he said. "We don't want to jeopardize the VTA tax."
Carl Guardino, CEO of Silicon Valley Leadership Group, noted that the VTA measure (which the group is assisting with) could bring in about $40 million to Palo Alto over the life of the measure.
This "flexible pot of funds" would allow Palo Alto (as well as the other 14 cities and towns in Santa Clara County) to move forward with the types of transportation-demand-management measures that the council has been discussing, he said.
"If we're not successful in November, we'll be figuring out how to divide zero 15 ways," Guardino said.
In agreeing to evaluate a local tax measure, several council members stressed caution, including Councilman Tom DuBois, who said a local tax is "not a decision we should run into."
Councilman Marc Berman agreed and said the council should have a "robust discussion" about funding mechanisms for the TMA and to give downtown stakeholders ample opportunity for input.
"We all know that in Palo Alto, if you try to short-circuit the process, it comes back to bite you," Berman said.
But Burt countered that businesses, like residents, are frustrated by traffic problems and, like the City Council, are looking for solutions.
The most prominent example thus far is in Stanford Research Park, a 750-acre sprawl of corporate campuses where the 12 large employers (including HP, VMWare, SAP and Lockheed Martin) recently formed their own transportation-management association. In the coming months, the group will be rolling out its own transit, bike and carpool programs catered to the needs of the Research Park's workforce. (Read Stanford Research Park companies join forces to fight traffic)
Given the increased focus on traffic from the business community, Burt said the city should find out as quickly whether a local measure and the VTA tax can succeed on the same ballot.
"If after polling it is determined not to be viable for the fall because it would compete too heavily with the VTA tax, we'd go in a different mode and figure out what our process would be going forward," Burt said. "If it did look promising, we'd need to pretty rapidly engage even more stakeholder involvement."