As Palo Alto looks ahead toward adopting a new long-term vision for transportation, officials are increasingly leaning on a new and yet unproven nonprofit to solve some of the city's most complex and longest festering traffic problems.
But even as they stressed on Monday night the importance of supporting the city's newly established Transportation Management Association (TMA), it remained unclear where the nearly $2.5 million in needed funding for the new group will come from. That is the amount that it would take to reduce the number of workers driving solo to downtown Palo Alto by 30 percent over three years, according to the organization's new business plan.
The updated business plan, which was released earlier this month, offers two options for achieving the council-mandated 30 percent reduction (the rate translates to about 1,650 downtown commuters). While the three-year plan carries an estimated price tag of $2.5 million, achieving the goal over a five-year period would cost about $3.5 million.
Both plans show the costs gradually increasing every year, with the city expected to cover some share of the budget and local businesses paying for another portion. The three-year plan indicates that the costs of reducing the single-occupancy-vehicle rate would be about $120,000 in the first year, $1.1 million in the second year and $1.3 million in the third year. This would lead to a 3 percent reduction in the single-occupancy-vehicle rate in the first year, a 15 percent reduction in the second year and a 30 percent reduction in the third.
Under the five-year plan, costs would climb gradually every year, from $120,000 in the first year to $1.4 million in the fifth.
The goal of the city and the new TMA is simple yet daunting: fewer car trips. But as the council discussed the city's new Transportation Element on Monday night, council members generally agreed that reducing vehicle trips is one of the city's most important long-term objectives.
To address this problem, the TMA's plans rely heavily on transit passes, including discounted tickets to Caltrain, VTA buses, Samtrans and Dumbarton Express. The business plan has a goal of shifting between 700 and 1,000 commuters (out of downtown's estimated 5,500 commuters).
Carpool subsidies is another tool, which is expected to shift the behavior of between 300 and 600 employees. The effort took off earlier this year, when the city signed an agreement with the carpooling app, Scoop.
The remaining workers would be shifted from cars to other modes of transportation through a combination of "last-mile" solutions, possibly by introducing a "Lyft Line" service for employees who need help getting home from their nearby Caltrain station; an expansion of the city's shuttle program; and services targeting workers in the hospitality industry who have to work in the off-peak hours. This could involve an agreement with a rideshare company or a special "pilot" shuttle that would operate in the off-hours.
The city's new Transportation Element, which the council discussed but did not vote on, acknowledges the TMA (and others like it) with a new policy, which calls for the city to "support the establishment and operation of Transportation Management Associations to address transportation and parking issues such as appropriate in the City's employment districts."
It also includes a policy calling for the city to work with the downtown TMA and with Stanford University to "aggregate data and realize measurable reductions in single-occupancy vehicle commuting into and from Downtown and in the Stanford Research Park."
Several council members argued for an even stronger emphasis on the TMA in the new document, which governs the city's vision for transportation until 2030.
Councilman Cory Wolbach said the downtown TMA, along with a transportation-working group in Stanford Research Park (a collaborative of large companies working together on shuttle systems and other traffic-reducing measures), should be called out more explicitly in the document.
"I think that's a major shift we've been moving toward in the last couple of years and I'd like to see that with an even greater emphasis," Wolbach said.
Vice Mayor Greg Scharff made the case for establishing other transportation-management nonprofits in the city, specifically around California Avenue. Exploring a California Avenue TMA should be an explicit goal in the document, he said.
Councilwoman Karen Holman made a case for exploring a "no-net new trips" goal, while Mayor Pat Burt took it a step further and said the city needs to work for a reduction of trips (Holman later also embraced the reduction goal).
Yet Burt also acknowledged that the council will have to figure out a way to actually implement the policies that will meet these goals.
"A bunch of whims and wishes without funding really don't get us anywhere," Burt said. "We've got to have a way to implement this."
Others shared his view. Toward the end of the meeting, Councilwoman Liz Kniss made the case for funding the TMA, saying the organization needs to be "kept alive."
"It will make a big difference in the long term,” she said. "It needs our help and it needs to survive."
Even so, it wasn't clear Monday where the subsidies will come from. The TMA's business plan lists parking revenues as one possible option. The city is now undertaking a parking study that will evaluate the prospect of introducing paid parking to downtown garages. The collected revenues, as well as funding from existing parking permits, could potentially be used to fund the TMA, according to the business plan.
Other possible revenue sources listed in the organization's budget include grants from the city, the county and transportation agencies, service contracts, private donations and assessments to downtown employers.