News

In new budget, city directs more funding toward pensions, traffic relief

Council approves plan to create Office of Transportation, add funding for Palo Alto TMA

Signaling its renewed push to tackle local traffic problems, the City Council approved on Monday a budget that establishes an Office of Transportation and adds funding for a nonprofit charged with shifting drivers away from cars and toward other modes of transportation.

By a 6-1 vote, with Councilman Greg Tanaka dissenting, the council approved a budget for fiscal year 2020 that continues and, in some cases, builds on the council's recent efforts to address mounting pension obligations, infrastructure needs and — most notably — transportation challenges.

Specifically, it adds resources to the city's transportation operation, which is charged with overseeing (among other things) the growing number of residential parking programs and the city's multiyear effort to redesign its railroad crossings.

The budget comes at a time of economic prosperity, with revenues growing by 8.2%, or $17.7 million, since the prior year. Of that amount, $13 million came from new tax revenues, with sales-, property- and hotel-tax revenues all showing healthy growth.

The biggest initiative in the new budget is the creation of the Office of Transportation, which will debut with 13.5 positions and which will add two more in the coming months. Before the move, the city's transportation planners made up a division in the city's Department of Planning and Community Environment.

The move underscores transportation's emergence as a top council priority and an area that demands extra attention from City Hall. In another sign of this shift, the council recommended contributing $750,000 this year to the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association, a nonprofit charged with reducing single-occupancy vehicles in the downtown and California Avenue areas. This is a major increase from the $480,000 that the city contributed last year. It is also $90,000 more than the $660,000 that the Finance Committee recommended last month, during its budget review.

Councilwoman Liz Kniss said the TMA, which purchases Caltrain passes for low-income employees and middle managers in the downtown area, is "heading in just the right direction" when it comes to getting cars off the road. She noted that the council had just scrapped its plans to build a downtown garage and that the savings from that project more than offset the additional contribution to the nonprofit.

Councilman Tom DuBois, who chairs the council's Finance Committee, supported her proposal, but suggested that the council should look for a different model to support the fledgling nonprofit. Businesses, he said, should do more to support the TMA.

"What we have right now is not sustainable," DuBois said.

Despite this change, DuBois observed Monday that the budget is by and large a continuation of prior efforts.

"It's an evolution," DuBois said. "There's nothing revolutionary here."

At the same time, the budget reflects the city's increasing reliance on public-private partnerships to provide key services to the community. Over the past year, the council had launched partnerships with Team Sheeper to manage the swimming programs at Rinconada Pool and with Pets In Need to oversee animal services. These partnerships had allowed the city to eliminate six-and-a-half full-time-equivalent positions from the 2019 budget.

The budget also underscores several persistent challenges, including growing labor costs and pension obligations. The council agreed to add a $6.2 million contribution to an irrevocable trust to address the problem, which raises the council's total contributions since 2017 to $22 million.

The budget also assumes a far more conservative rate of return on CalPERS investments (6.2%, well below the 7% rate used by CalPERS) than was used in the past, a change that adds about $3.8 million to expenses in the current fiscal year. The new approach on pensions has been championed by Mayor Eric Filseth, who led the push last year to adopt what many consider to be a more realistic rate. Kniss lauded the change.

"It's really an about-face from where we were before," Kniss said. "It's important that the public knows that we are allocating this for the future."

While the council majority supported the budget, Tanaka suggested that the city should be taking advantage of the prosperous economic times by stashing money in reserves. He also suggested that the city cut its expenses by $18 million this year, a recommendation that the rest of the council rejected.

"I'd love for us to be putting away some money during these booming times because these booming times will not go on forever," Tanaka said.

In addition to adopting the budget, the council also approved increases for utility rates, which collectively will add about $15.62 to the average monthly bill in the coming fiscal year, bringing it to $312.15 per month, according to staff. The rate changes include a 5.5% hike to electric rates; an 8.5% increase to gas rates; a 4.4% increase to the water rates; and a 7% increase to the wastewater rate.

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Comments

26 people like this
Posted by Downfall
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jun 18, 2019 at 8:00 am

" In another sign of this shift, the council recommended contributing $750,000 this year to the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association, a nonprofit charged with reducing single-occupancy vehicles in the downtown area. This is a major increase from the $480,000 that the city contributed last year. It is also $90,000 than the $660,000 that the Finance Committee recommended last month, during its budget review."

Does anyone know what documented successes the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association has had to justify this significantly increased contribution? Or is it just more of our city council being magnanimous with other people's money?


27 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 18, 2019 at 8:29 am

Throwing money at transportation by making it more difficult to drive is not a solution. Real alternatives would be to improve transportation to get people where they need to go by providing alternatives makes much more sense. Also making the parking situation just playing musical chairs around town is poor parking management. Having parking at offramps and providing efficient dedicated shuttles might make a better solution to more restrictions.

Transportation has to be looked at in a regional viewpoint. Most traffic is either coming or going from Palo Alto to somewhere else. These vehicles are obviously being used because they don't have efficient alternatives. A 3 hour commute on transportation v 20 minutes drive is not going to work to make people choose to pay for 3 rides plus some walking. If Google buses work why can't other commuters have similar options?


7 people like this
Posted by Seriously
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 18, 2019 at 10:04 am

Also cutting more fire department response and admin. Page 213 in the operations budget. This time it’s an ambulance and taking station 3 out of service to cover the missing ambulance.


21 people like this
Posted by Dave
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 18, 2019 at 11:27 am

Missing the point - City Council needs to stop approving commercial development permits - hotels, businesses, etc - all that drives the traffic (no pun intended). Sure, some will sue for "preprty rights", but screw them. We have enough!! City revenues are huge - no way to justify more development to generate revenue. Every additional car or job here degrades the quality of life, period. And PA should press Santa Clara County on the 800 pound gorilla - Stanford. Millions more square feet - that's not going to impact the surrounding community? That's BS. We have enough. STOP!


5 people like this
Posted by yes we can reduce (not eliminate) dependence on driving
a resident of Escondido School
on Jun 18, 2019 at 12:47 pm

yes we can reduce (not eliminate) dependence on driving is a registered user.

Providing incentives for drivers to try something other than driving solo is NOT "making it more difficult to drive"! In fact, drivers who don't have a realistic option for a transportation choice other than driving will derive great benefit from focused TMA efforts to encourage alternatives for peak period drivers to try taking transit, or carpooling, or even biking. Lots of evidence that drivers who do have choices will respond to these incentives, despite claims to the contrary by the ideologues.

Plus shifting 5% to other options leads to not just more parking spots available for everyone else during peak periods, but noticeably reduced time circling in search of a spot, reduced back up at key intersections etc. And all of us benefit from reducing CO2 and other motor vehicle pollution.
What's key to success here is specifically targeting peak period congestion -- and funding the incentives at a level that can make a difference. The TMA has demonstrated proof of concept -- so thanks to the City Council for providing this increased budget to enable a multifaceted effort to congestion management!


6 people like this
Posted by Hilda Katerina
a resident of Duveneck School
on Jun 18, 2019 at 12:58 pm

Revamp the streets for electric trams and buses like they have in Basel Switzerland! There are very very few cars. People walk, bike, scooter and ride mopeds. The entire transportation system runs seamlessly!


9 people like this
Posted by Reduce car use for less congested streets.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 18, 2019 at 2:04 pm

Reduce car use for less congested streets. is a registered user.

I agree with reducing car traffic as best we can. I drive sometimes, but I have managed to reduce my car trips by more than half by walking and biking more, riding the Shuttle occasionally and taking the train for many out-of-town trips.

Once I made the effort, I was very surprised how easy it was...and how many car trips I was able to eliminate.

For our children and grandchildren, let's make the effort!

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that I lost ten pounds.


7 people like this
Posted by JCP
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 18, 2019 at 2:29 pm

JCP is a registered user.

It's mostly lip service. Now the Council can say they made it a priority because they spent more money. This does little to solve anything.

Council will ignore bike safety and alternative transportation to approve projects that impact their wealthy friends and contributors, like Castilleja's ridiculous proposal to have cars converge from all directions to enter an underground garage on Bryant at Embarcadero.


8 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 18, 2019 at 4:58 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

All the traffic relief efforts will fail completely as long as more commercial development is allowed and more housing is developed. Check out Hong Kong's terrible traffic congestion while having the best, most modern public transit system in the world. Too many people, too much commercial development equals traffic nightmare.


3 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 18, 2019 at 6:03 pm

From the article:

"Councilwoman Liz Kniss said the TMA, which purchases Caltrain passes for low-income employees and middle managers in the downtown area..."

I'm all for supporting low-income employees but why is the city using our money to buy passes for middle managers? Seems they can pay their own way.


12 people like this
Posted by Wishful thinking
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 18, 2019 at 9:39 pm

Why are there hikes in rates and fees when city revenue is up so much? What about looking out for the taxpayer?


8 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Monroe Park
on Jun 19, 2019 at 4:50 am

They are deliberately making it difficult to drive, whether directly or indirectly. In all of their plans, not just Palo Alto but regionally, single-occupant car commuting which is what the majority of people do holds the lowest priority.
Some examples are double HOV lanes, the neverending JPA flood construction, the expansion of Facebook's malignant presence all over Menlo Park, etc... basically whenever they are coming up with new construction plans that would snarl traffic and create congestion nightmares, cars are given zero consideration because of the delusional impression that we will all just magically stop driving cars.

Imagine that -- a government that serves a minority of cyclists and radical progressives over the majority of tax-paying citizens. But that is what we have.
You go to other states and you see cars being prioritized, as they should be. Traffic flow is optimal. On many roads there aren't even sidewalks. But not in the Bay Area, no in CA where an ideological, unchallenged 1 party rules and is able to get away with murder because of zero opposition at the ballots.


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