Last month, with little warning and no fanfare, Palo Alto's new Office of Transportation opened for business.
Once nestled inside the Department of Planning and Community Environment, the operation formerly known as the Transportation Division now stands on its own. Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello, who until recently was supervised by the planning director, reports directly to the city manager's office under the new structure.
The organizational change could have significant implications for the city. The small but increasingly critical transportation operation is responsible for executing on two of the City Council's four priorities this year: transportation and grade separation (the reconfiguration of railroad-track intersections).
It also absorbs an outsized share of public ire. In just the past few months, the Palo Alto council has been hit with five separate petitions relating to transportation: three from Palo Alto neighborhoods where residents want to make sure their homes won't be seized as part of the city's effort to redesign the rail crossings; a fourth from businesses in the Southgate neighborhood who allege the city's allotted an insufficient number of permits for employees in the area's new residential parking program; and a fifth, signed by more than 1,000 residents who are upset about the new Ross Road bicycle boulevard, which the petition disparages as "an accident waiting to happen."
In addition to facing urgent citizen petitions, the council has set the ambitious goal of selecting a "preferred alternative" for separating the railroad tracks from local streets at the city's four crossings by the end of the year. The city has recently hired a new consultant to push the effort over the finish line.
Deputy City Manager Rob de Geus told the Planning and Transportation Commission on June 27 that, as evidenced by the creation of the Office of Transportation, "The city manager feels strongly that the City Manager's Office needs to be closer to transportation matters."
But the shift isn't merely managerial. It is a recognition by City Manager James Keene and some council members that the various transportation efforts need far more staffing and funding. The new structure creates a more direct link between the people implementing these projects and the officials approving funding. As Councilman Greg Scharff suggested at a May meeting of the council's Finance Committee, a dedicated transportation department would make it easier for the council to focus on traffic-related issues when setting the budget.
The change comes at critical time for the Department of Planning and Community Environment, which is charged with a raft of responsibilities beyond transportation: performing long-term planning, including the recently completed Comprehensive Plan update and the soon-to-commence North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan; reviewing proposed developments and zone changes; conducting code enforcement; ensuring historic preservation; and helping the council realize its new goal of producing 300 housing units per year.
The department is also short-staffed: Planning Director Hillary Gitelman resigned in April, and the key position of transportation-planning manager, which oversees (among other things) Palo Alto's residential parking programs and efforts to reduce traffic is likewise vacant. The last transportation manager, Philip Kamhi, stepped down in March to take a job with San Francisco BART. He was the third person to occupy — and resign from — that position in four years.
The work overload in the Transportation Division has gotten so heavy that in late March, Keene made a public plea for residents and council members to "moderate their expectations and ease up on parking-related questions." He also declared a hiatus on new initiatives, stretching at least until the end of the year, so that staff can focus on the transportation programs already in the works.
"We anticipate that additional changes won't be feasible until we're able to augment staff and have more resources," Keene said.
By Palo Alto's standards, the decision to form the new office has been remarkably swift. The City Council never discussed — much less voted on — the change, which is also not reflected in the budget that the council passed on June 18, a week before it went on its July break.
The idea first emerged publicly on May 16, when the council's Finance Committee was reviewing the proposed budget for the Department of Planning and Community Environment and Scharff, the committee's chair, observed that traffic is a much bigger issue today than it was when he began his council tenure in 2009.
"It almost seems to me that transportation should be its own department at some point," Scharff said at the meeting. "The resources we need to put into solving transportation issues seem to be very important to the community these days."
Scharff also suggested that transportation could use far more funding and that residents would likely support a ballot measure that would devote more revenues to transportation.
"I think that's something the community really values and gets behind," Scharff said. "It's not amorphous; it affects people's lives in a huge way."
Councilwoman Lydia Kou, who also serves on the committee and who often disagrees with Scharff, concurred at the meeting that the city "may want to look at separating the departments." No one else on the committee commented on the idea.
For the Planning and Transportation Commission, the council's chief advisory panel on the two topics, the organizational shift came seemingly out of the blue. Both Chair Ed Lauing and Commissioner Asher Waldfogel told the Weekly they weren't aware of the change before de Geus announced it on June 27. Lauing said that, in general, he is hopeful that the reorganization provides "more traction on critical transportation issues."
"But we have not seen any game plan yet on what this might look like," Lauing added.
Waldfogel also said that he hopes that with the change, progress on transportation issues will move more quickly. He pointed to a downtown-parking study that commissioners discussed — and largely rejected — about a year ago, with the expectation that it would be updated and return to them. That has not yet happened, he noted.
"There's no question transportation has been under-resourced," Waldfogel told the Weekly. "I'm hoping this is a way to get a little more focus on it."
The change isn't the only one in the works at City Hall. Assistant City Manager Ed Shikada, who is set to assume the city manager's role in January, after Keene retires, said the city is also considering consolidating the Development Services Department with the Department of Planning and Community Environment. Development Services, which processes development applications and conducts building inspections, had been part of the planning department until about five years ago. The reunification would take advantage of the fact that Development Services Director Peter Pirnejad jumped ship earlier this year to become assistant city manager in Napa. His position, like Gitelman's, remains vacant.
Shikada told the Weekly that this would allow the city to hire one director to oversee both departments.
With transportation pulled out entirely, the change would create a "more manageable" Department of Planning and Community Environment, Shikada said. Combining Development Services and Planning would make it easier for project applicants to maintain their plans' momentum and "have clarity about what was approved"; it would also allow the department to better focus on housing.
Not everyone, however, is thrilled about the shift. When de Geus announced the new Office of Transportation to the Planning and Transportation Commission, Commissioner William Riggs expressed concern about the separation of land use and transportation staffing.
"They are intrinsically linked and, structurally, I fail to see the logic of the city manager because it does create a structural disconnect," Riggs said.
The concern is both philosophical and practical. As the commission's name implies, city leaders have traditionally accepted that land use has a huge impact on transportation and vice versa. The new structure, as Riggs implied, could undermine that linkage.
And practically, the planning department, which has traditionally supported the commission, no longer has in its purview dozens of programs that the commission is charged with vetting.
Shikada said staff is still looking at the best ways for the new Office of Transportation to relate to or interact with the various advisory bodies. He concurred that land use and transportation are deeply intertwined but noted that transportation also has deep links to Public Works and other city departments as well.
"Transportation cuts across lots of organizational divides and departmental responsibilities," Shikada said. "That's why it is important for us to be thoughtful in how it's looked at."
The discussion is set to heat up in the coming months. In June, the city began soliciting bids for a consultant who will be charged with making the transportation operation more effective, including recommending new staffing levels, the Weekly has learned. The City Council is scheduled to select the consultant shortly after it returns from its July recess, Shikada said.
The consultant, he said, will survey other cities and provide Palo Alto benchmarking data and "best practices" for transportation projects. The consultant will help "figure out how many people are needed to cover the volume of issues we have," including planning for a new rail design, bike boulevards, traffic-safety projects, parking management and traffic-reduction efforts. The consultant will also make recommendations on staffing levels in transportation functions; coach transportation staff on working within a council-manager organization, collaborating with other departments and managing community concerns; propose modifications to the Residential Preferential Parking program; and — perhaps most crucially — participate in ensuring the city has the resources it needs to support the City Council's preferred alternative for grade separation.
Concurrently, the city manager's office and, ultimately, the council will consider whether any changes should be made to boards, commissions or other advisory bodies that give residents a venue for weighing in on transportation projects.
While those answers are still months away, one thing is already clear, Shikada said: The city needs more funding for transportation.
"We know we don't have enough resources to do what we want in transportation, particularly on community engagement," Shikada said.
In the long term, city officials hope to get the needed funds by switching from free parking to paid parking in downtown lots and garages (and using parking revenues for transportation improvements) and by asking the voters to approve an employee tax, which would potentially help pay for the railroad reconfigurations. In the short term, it will be up to the new Office of Transportation to make its case for a greater piece of the pie — competing with its former department — come next year's budget season.