Despite widespread anxiety about traffic congestion, Palo Alto residents aren't entirely sold on a new business tax that would help pay for shuttles, bike boulevards and other transportation improvements, a new poll shows.
The City Council commissioned the survey as it continues to explore the idea of placing a transportation-tax measure on the November ballot. The poll, which was conducted by the firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, indicated that while about 67 percent of local residents support the concept of a transportation tax, support level dips to about 61 percent after opposing arguments are aired -- just below the two-thirds threshold needed for passage in a special election.
The support level is, however, high enough to make the transportation measure a plausible proposition in the November election. If the issue if framed as a "general tax" (as opposed to one dedicated to a special purpose), the business tax would only need 50 percent support for passage, provided that it appears on the ballot during a general election. If the council pursues this route, it could then pass a separate ordinance or an advisory measure directing the funds to be allocated toward transportation.
This was the same tactic the council used in 2014, when it asked the voters to approve a hotel-tax increase to pay for infrastructure improvements (the measure passed with 76 percent support).
The poll also indicated that local support appears to be strong for a countywide transportation-tax measure that the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) plans to put on the November ballot. The measure would raise the sales tax rate by 1/2 cent over a 30-year period to raise about $6.5 billion for a variety of transportation improvements throughout the county.
If approved, the county measure would pay for an extension of BART to San Jose and Santa Clara, Caltrain upgrades (along with $700 million for separating roadways from the train tracks); and improvements to expressways, highway interchanges and transit services. It would also allocate funds for street repairs and bike improvements.
Of those polled who favor the county tax, 34 percent say they will "definitely vote yes," 37 percent say they would "probably vote yes" and 2 percent say they are "leaning toward yes." By contrast, 9 percent said they would "probably vote no" and 13 percent said they would "definitely vote no."
For the local measure, the margins are far smaller. Though 67 percent said they support the "concept" of a citywide transportation-tax measure -- which is exactly at the needed two-thirds threshold for a special election -- just 30 percent said "definitely yes," while 35 percent said "probably yes." In addition, 13 percent gave "definitely no" as their answer, while another 13 percent said "probably no."
Palo Alto's proposed business tax would focus exclusively on transportation improvements in the city. Though the council has yet to formulate a list of those projects, prior discussions indicate it would include an expansion of the city's shuttle system, improved traffic signals, bike-route improvements and transportation-demand-management programs, which aim to get people out of cars and into other modes of transportation.
Given the area's worsening traffic conditions, the council agreed Monday that it should continue to explore the local measure. By a unanimous vote, council members decided to go out for a second poll that would help them determine whether the measure should be pursued this year.
Despite their willingness to commission an additional survey, some council members, including Marc Berman, Liz Kniss and Cory Wolbach, argued that it would probably make more sense to explore a transportation-tax measure in 2018. This would give the city time to conduct outreach to businesses and residents and further refine its funding plan for the tax proceeds, they said.
Wolbach suggested that a 2018 measure could address not only traffic but also housing needs. According to the new poll, "cost of housing" scored highest on the city's list of most urgent problems, with 76 percent calling it either an "extremely serious problem" or a "very serious problem." This was followed by California's drought conditions (65 percent) and traffic and congestion (53 percent).
"These are major challenges that we're facing for the next 25 years," Wolbach said. "Let's really take time to figure out what our priorities are, put together a package and come back in 2018."
Kniss said postponing a tax measure to 2018 would give the city more time to talk about the proposal with local businesses, which have indicated that they've been out of the loop of discussions.
But Mayor Pat Burt and Councilwoman Karen Holman said that the city shouldn't give up on a 2016 measure just yet. Both pointed out that the city simply doesn't have the resources that it needs to solve the worsening traffic problems. Holman said the proposed budget for fiscal year 2017 looks to draw $4.9 million from the city's reserves to meet rising expenses.
"This is the first sweep, and I think we haven't tapped at the potential support that can be generated," Holman said of the poll.
Burt said that waiting two years would only leave the city with a "worse need and a bigger hole to try to dig ourselves out of." He also argued that funds from the business tax (which would be based on employee head count and which he estimates would generate about $6 million a year) would go a longer way in solving the traffic problem than the housing crisis.
"On housing, this much money wouldn't move the needle; zone changes would," he said. "It's one thing to find something that would appeal to the voters, it's another thing as to what would actually have an impact on the problem."
After discussing the polling results, the council agreed to refer the matter to its Local Transportation Funding Committee, which will work with the pollster to formulate the survey.
In the meantime, the city will also start to conduct outreach to the business community.