Palo Alto's drive to shift the commute patterns of downtown employees received a big boost this week, when the City Council upped its contribution to the new nonprofit charged with orchestrating the effort.
The council approved by a 7-0 vote, with Councilwomen Liz Kniss and Lydia Kou absent, an allocation of $480,000 for the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association, an organization that was formed in January 2016 with the goal of reducing the rate of single-occupant vehicles (SOV) in the downtown area. The funding aims to help the organization reduce the rate by 14 percent in the next year from the baseline year of 2015 through a combination of transit subsidies, carpooling programs and bicycling incentives.
The council's vote followed a lengthy discussion of the TMA's progress to date and a debate over whether the city should also make any commitments beyond 2018. Ultimately, the council signaled its intent to support the organization in future years, provided the organization submit a detailed business plan by spring of 2018, when members begin debating the fiscal year 2019 budget.
Despite expressing caution about future commitments, the council's approval represents the city's biggest investment in the organization to date. After initially spending $500,000 on consultants who recommended among many other proposals the establishment of the group, the council had subsequently limited its support for the TMA to two $100,000 contributions.
For the TMA, which has a budget of about $160,000, the city's allocation means that it will be able to scale up its existing transportation-demand-management programs and introduce new ones. To date, the organization has been focusing on getting people to carpool and rely on transit services, efforts that have been particularly effective in addressing the most challenging demographic: service workers.
Unlike downtown's tech workers, only 30 percent of whom drive alone to work, service employees have an single-occupant vehicle rate of 70 percent, according to a commuter survey that the TMA commissioned earlier this year. Even that, however, is a significant improvement over last year, when 80 percent of the surveyed service workers reported driving alone to work.
In some respects, the nascent organization has met and even exceeded its early goals, said Rob George, area leader at Philz Coffee and president of the TMA's board of directors. More than 1,100 users had downloaded the Scoop app, which enables carpool matching and which George said has 158 unique users Palo Alto per month (the TMA had projected 100 unique users).
But the biggest difference maker, he said, was the TMA's subsidy of transit passes for service workers. The organization had planned to distribute 25 transit passes; instead, it gave out 100 passes before maxing out its budget. Of these, 57 percent were Caltrain passes, while the rest were for SamTrans (21 percent), the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (17 percent) and a Dumbarton Express (3 percent).
"Service workers are really loving that as a benefit, to get to and from work and avoid driving," George said.
George and the TMA earned plaudits from the council on Monday night, even as some members were cautious about committing public funds beyond 2018. Councilman Tom DuBois supported a more cautious approach, which would not authorize City Manager James Keene to make funding agreements with the TMA beyond the next year. His proposal failed, with only Mayor Greg Scharff and Councilwoman Karen Holman joining him.
Councilman Eric Filseth, who voted against the DuBois amendment, nevertheless had some concerns about making commitments too far into the future. After George mentioned the recent increase in carpool usage (including Waze's recent entry into the carpool-app scene), Filseth said that this area may be more suitable for future expenditures than transit passes.
"I think all of us will feel more comfortable next year during budget allocation if we got answers," Filseth said.
The council also widely acknowledged that to truly work, the TMA will need additional funding sources. One revenue source is parking fees. The council voted in the summer to significantly raise prices for permit parking in city garages and parking lots, with the idea that the higher fees will support traffic-reduction efforts.
The city also has Residential Preferential Parking districts in downtown and near California Avenue (a third one, in Southgate, is set to premier later this year) to limit commuter intrusion into residential neighborhoods. In June, the council raised the permit prices for both neighborhoods.
According to the TMA survey, the percentage of downtown commuters parking on neighborhood streets had dropped from 19 percent in 2015 to 7 percent this year.
The council is also preparing to introduce meter parking to public garages -- a change that could spell a windfall for the TMA.
Other potential revenue sources are less certain. The council's long-running debate over whether to introduce a business tax to pay for transportation improvements stalled out earlier this year, when officials agreed not to move ahead with a tax measure at this time.
Yet the council has not entirely abandoned the idea. DuBois argued this week that a business tax to fund transportation improvement would make sense, given that commuters benefit from the TMA's services.
Mayor Greg Scharff was less thrilled about the tax idea and noted that Stanford Research Park, which includes some of the city's biggest companies, already has its own self-funded Transportation Management Association. He also recalled the city's last proposal to institute a business tax -- a 2009 measure that ultimately suffered a defeat at the ballot box.
"If we're going to do an employee tax, people will need to be very clear about what we're using that money for. ... I do think it's complicated and that we need to be very thoughtful as we go forward," Scharff said.
Despite these differences of opinion, the council was unanimous in expressing its support for the TMA and its desire to accelerate the nonprofit's efforts.
Councilman Cory Wolbach said that while the TMA is making progress, it's not making it "as fast as I wanted it to."
"Keep the fire going," Wolbach said. "I don't want to see it smoldering; I want to see it raging."