The new nonprofit charged with easing Palo Alto's traffic congestion has a new leader, a growing bank account and fresh plans to expand its programs both in downtown and beyond.
The Palo Alto Transportation Management Association (TMA), which the city launched three years ago to tackle downtown's worsening traffic problem, has seen some success in its first two years by using transit subsidies, carpool programs and trip-planning assistance. According to a mode-shift survey conducted last May and June, the rate of service workers who drove alone in 2017 was 70 percent, down from 80 percent in 2016.
The biggest contributor to this trend is the TMA's subsidized-transit program, which buys Caltrain, VTA or SamTrans passes for service employees. Today, 115 downtown workers use subsidized transit passes, according to a report from Christine Maley-Grubl, the association's newly hired executive director. That's up from 89 last fall.
But thanks to the City Council's decision last year to allocate $480,000 for the TMA, the organization is hoping to raise the number to 200 this year. And provided it gets the necessary funding in future years, the association is looking to distribute between 700 and 1,000 transit passes in the next three to five years.
The transit program alone could account for nearly half of the association's goal of reducing solo driving by 30 percent from the baseline year of 2015. The association estimates that downtown has about 5,500 employees who drive alone to and from work, which means it would have to shift 1,650 drivers to other modes.
Wendy Silvani, who helped start the organization and who is now working with Maley-Grubl during the transition, said the program has been getting overwhelmingly positive feedback from users. Once people have started using the program, most have not left it, said Silvani (who is now helping Redwood City launch a similar association).
In addition to the promoting transit, the Palo Alto TMA also hopes to expand its two carpooling programs: Scoop and Waze. Currently, it has between 160 and 197 unique users per month, according to Maley-Grubl. The association is looking to raise that to 240 this year and have 300 and 600 users in the three-to-five-year timeframe.
Some think it can do even better. Bob McGrew, vice chair of the TMA's board of directors, noted that compared to buying workers transit passes, the carpooling program is inexpensive. McGrew, a Palantir employee, wondered whether the city can do even better than 240 users this year.
"This is our cheapest program," McGrew said. "The more we can do through marketing to get people to adopt it, the more we can stretch our dollars."
The association is also thinking about unveiling new programs, including ones relating to bicycling and shuttles. The board estimates that it can get between 100 and 150 solo drivers to take shuttles in the next three to five years.
The goals, which the board discussed Wednesday, signify growing ambitions for a group that until recently had an annual budget of $160,000. The city limited its contribution to the TMA to $100,000 in the first two years. The TMA's initial plan was to only offer about 25 transit passes, though it roughly quadrupled its goal before running out of funds last year.
Rob George, who chairs the TMA's board of directors, said the group has "done some great work and tested programs" in its early days of operation, with almost no funding.
"Now we're ready with a new permanent (executive director) and some funds to grow some programs," said George, area director for Lemonade Restaurant Group.
The program may expand geographically as well. The TMA board Wednesday discussed bringing the transit program to California Avenue, which is experiencing its own traffic and parking challenges. The board agreed that this idea is worth pursuing, particularly if the organization is able to get some private funding and can partner with the recently established Stanford Research Park TMA.
The effort may also benefit from the council's decision last summer to raise the annual fees for parking permits in the California Avenue business district from $149 to $365. During its discussion of the TMA last August, several council members said that they would like to see the revenues from the permits allocated for programs that discourage driving.
"The community is interested, the businesses are interested," George said. "If we have the ability to add extra funding ... this is moving one step closer to the goals of the TMA in general."