A proposal in Palo Alto to place a tax measure on the November ballot to fund traffic improvements is beginning to stir anxieties in the city's business community, though a new survey suggests that most residents would support it.
The City Council plans to discuss and possibly decide on the potential tax measure on June 27. And while council members generally agree that the city urgently needs a new funding source for alleviating traffic congestion, not everyone is convinced that this year's general election is the best time to do it.
Vice Mayor Greg Scharff, who sits on the council's Local Transportation Funding Committee, is the committee's lead skeptic about a 2016 measure. Over the last two meetings, he has been arguing that the city should instead form a blue-ribbon task force that would evaluate potential transportation projects and then bring the package to the voters in 2017 or 2018.
Others on the committee maintain that the city's traffic situation has already deteriorated and that it's incumbent on the council to do something about it. Waiting two years, their argument goes, would exacerbate the problem even further, while delaying potential solutions.
"This is an urgent problem," Councilwoman Liz Kniss said at the committee's Thursday meeting. "We've talked about this for quite a while now and, as much as housing looms out there, the traffic problem is one we hear about on a constant basis. If there's one thing people like to talk about in town right now, it's how terrible the traffic is right now, how much worse it is, how much worse it's going to get."
For proponents of the tax measures, a recent survey offered plenty of good news, along with some reasons for caution. The new survey, which was conducted by the polling firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates (FM3), suggests that about 65 percent of the voters would support the type of tax measure currently envisioned by the council -- a business tax based on employee count. Under the current proposal, businesses would have to pay either $50 (if they have between 11 and 50 employees) or $100 (if they have more than 50 employees); businesses with up to 10 employees would be exempted.
Because the measure would be a general tax, it would only need 50 percent support rather than the two-thirds approval that specific taxes require.
Yet the survey also found that of the 65 percent who said they support the measure, only 36 percent said they would "definitely" vote for the measure, while 22 percent said they would probably vote and 8 percent said they were "undecided," but leading toward yes. The survey also suggested that support would drop if there was an organized opposition campaign, particularly if voters become convinced that the council is trying to rush the measure through.
Another factor that will weigh heavily on the council's decision is the transportation measure that is being spearheaded by Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA). That measure, a 1/2 cent sales tax increase, is expected to raise $6 billion for a host of regional improvements, including an extension of BART to San Jose, increased bus service, an investment in grade separation along the Caltrain corridor (which would entail submerging the train tracks under crossing streets, or vice versa).
The VTA measure, which would require support from two-thirds of the county's voters, proved popular with Palo Alto voters, with about 75 percent of the respondents to the city's new survey expressing support for it. But after voters learned about the potential local measure, support level for the countywide one dropped to about 69 percent, according to the survey results revealed Thursday.
During the committee's discussion, Scharff made the case for carefully crafting a list of transportation projects and only then asking the voters for a funding source. While he concurred with his colleagues about the need to "do something" to solve the city's worsening traffic problems, he acknowledged that he doesn't know at this time which projects would accomplish this. He also expressed some concern about the possible effect that the local effort could have on the regional one.
"We can lose both this and the VTA tax and I think this would be very, very unfortunate," Scharff said.
While so far, there hasn't been any significant opposition to the proposed tax measure, members of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce urged the council on Thursday to proceed with caution. Peter Stone, chair of the Chamber's board of directors, said the group is preparing to officially throw its support behind the VTA tax measure, which he noted took several years to put together.
"Although the polls suggest the effect won't be large, I think it's right for those of us who support the VTA measure to be concerned about the impact," Stone said.
Chamber CEO Judy Kleinberg also said Thursday that her group would be concerned if there was another measure on the ballot that would erode support for the VTA proposal. She also told the council that if it chooses to move ahead with a tax measure, it should include a sunset clause. Without such a clause, Kleinberg said, the measure "almost certainly is going to be opposed."
But Mayor Pat Burt made a case for pursuing the local measure. Unless the council acts in short order to come up with meaningful solutions to the city's traffic problems, the local political climate would make things even more difficult for the business community.
"We've seen that the concern of the community over this issue," Burt said. "If we don't solve the problem, what's going to be the trend line of the political sentiment of the resident community toward the business community and future development? I would posit that it is going to be very different if we don't solve the problem than if we do."
The committee didn't take any formal votes Thursday, though members made some suggestions about the potential measure, should the council ultimately choose to pursue it. If the council opts to move ahead with a general tax in 2016, it would likely supplement it with an ordinance that would specify that the tax revenues would be used for transportation projects.
In a nod to the Chamber's concerns, Councilwoman Karen Holman also suggested that the measure include a sunset clause and proposed that the tax extend to 2028, around the time when the city's soon-to-be-updated Comprehensive Plan will be nearing its expiration date. Holman also said it would be critical to appoint an oversight committee that would monitor expenditures and report to the council. "We'd be foolish and irresponsible if we didn't require that," Holman said.