Despite widespread recognition that traffic congestion continues to be a pressing priority, Palo Alto is considering backing away from a long-discussed plan to create a business tax that would pay for transportation improvements.
City staff has been exploring a tax proposal for more than a year. Last year, the city commissioned surveys to gauge public opinion about a new business tax and agreed to appoint a citizen committee to vet the potential tax measure. In December, the council approved the membership criteria for the 16-member committee, which would consist of business leaders, residents and transportation experts.
Now, City Manager James Keene is recommending that the city make a U-turn on the new committee and defer any action -- a suggestion that the City Council will consider on Monday.
In making the recommendation, Keene cited the many transportation initiatives that the city currently has underway, a list that includes various bike improvements, two new garages (one near California Avenue and another downtown), a public-outreach process centered on Caltrain grade separation and the proposed expansion of the city's free shuttle. Most of these projects, he wrote, have "demanding requirements and usually even more demanding community engagement requirements."
"The same transportation staff who would be most involved in any transportation stakeholder-group process are already heavily involved in these projects and couldn't realistically support this transportation-tax process without seriously compromising these other important initiatives," Keene's report states.
Given the growing workload, Keene recommends that the council revisit the need for a tax in 2018 or subsequent years, "when staff can effectively support a demanding public-engagement process."
The council's desire to move ahead with a new tax was fueled in large part by its desire to raise money for the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association (TMA), a nascent nonprofit charged with reducing traffic by getting drivers to switch to other modes of transportation. Just this week, the council voted to approve a new long-term transportation vision that puts a heavy premium on reducing the number of solo drivers to and within Palo Alto.
The newly approved Transportation Element states that the key to a sustainable transportation system "lies in providing more options and more convenience so that people will more readily choose not to drive."
"Palo Altans recognize that, at times, driving is necessary, but to address congestion, climate change and improve overall quality of life, the policies and programs in this Element must focus on providing convenient, affordable alternatives to the automobile," the document states.
The Transportation Element also includes several policies focusing directly on reducing car commuting, including one that calls on the city to "collaborate with Palo Alto employers and business owners to develop, implement and expand comprehensive programs like the Transportation Management Association (TMA) to reduce single-occupant vehicle commute trips, including through incentives." Another program calls for expanding the TMA from downtown to California Avenue and other areas of the city when appropriate.
To date, the council has been talking about the new business tax as a possible source of funding for these efforts. In addition, the city has recently completed a parking study that suggested switching to paid parking in city-owned lots and garages. Parking revenues would be used to support the TMA and other traffic-reduction efforts.
While the city has been considering a switch to paid parking for several years now, Keene pointed to the new study as another factor in his recommendation to defer moving ahead with the tax. The new Downtown Parking Management Study, Keene wrote, has offered a new revenue-raising possibility with a "clear geographic nexus." An April 11 report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment noted that after the city makes the needed investments, "any net excess revenues could be used to support the nascent Palo Alto Transportation Management Association."
During the council's April 11 discussion of the downtown parking study, Keene suggested that the parking revenues may be enough to keep the TMA afloat.
"Once we had gotten through the capitalization and the implementation phase, there would be clearly a sufficient revenue stream to clearly support our TMA objectives and TDM (transportation-demand management) investments that we want to make that would have a reciprocal benefit on our overall parking and traffic situation," Keene told the council on April 11.
When the council directed staff to establish the new stakeholder committee, members were hoping to have the group complete its work by this fall. To date, however, there's been little progress. The city had extended the deadline for applications several times and ultimately received 39 applications, according to Keene's report. The outreach process, he wrote, had some challenges, with potential applicants asking about the "scope, purpose and portfolio of responsibilities of the committee."
Since then, Keene wrote, "No further action has been taken on the formation of the committee."
If the City Council moves ahead with Keene's recommendation, it would effectively abandon its plan to move ahead with a transportation tax this year.
"There should also be more specificity about funding needs, potential uses of revenues and identification of gaps in the City's overall transportation strategy by the beginning of next year that could inform the Council's decision and bring more initial clarity to any tax stakeholder process," Keene wrote.