Philip Kamhi is going into the role of Palo Alto's chief transportation official with his eyes wide open.
He is returning to the city after leaving just a year and a half ago to take a job at BART, lured back by the promises of reporting directly to the city manager, additional staffing and the City Council's commitment to implementing improvements that have languished for years.
Kamhi's previous job with the city, which he held for only a year, was to oversee Palo Alto's complicated parking system, including the Residential Preferential Parking (RPP) programs that are now being targeted for major changes. He was the last of three different people who held that job over just a two-year period between 2016 and 2018.
City Manager Ed Shikada and the council are in the process of implementing a major shift in how transportation issues are managed at city hall, and Shikada believes getting Kamhi in place is key to the plan. With the resignation last August of Chief Transportation Official Josh Mello, the architect of some of the city's most controversial traffic projects and creator of the infamous bike boulevard street "furniture" on Ross Road and elsewhere, the city has created an Office of Transportation that will no longer be within the over-worked planning department.
Transportation programs in the city have been both controversial and understaffed, and unprecedented turnover has stood in the way of progress. The recommendations of numerous consultant reports have been neglected or delayed over the years because of, among other things, the turmoil and challenges of managing the current complex RPP system.
Meanwhile, other important transportation issues, such as the current debate over rail grade separation, have been plagued by delays and a lack of cohesive and consistent public process.
Last year, former City Manager Jim Keene, Shikada and the council realized that transportation staff vacancies, the hodgepodge of residential parking rules and systems and a backlash from the community on perceived illogical and counterproductive traffic-mitigation measures had overwhelmed and virtually paralyzed the diminished transportation team.
On Monday night, the council plans a discussion on the new Office of Transportation work plan, which charts a course to achieving reforms of the RPP system, including the establishment of clear and consistent rules and policies. In June, the council endorsed the creation of quantitative standards for when the diminished availability of street parking warrants a residential parking program, a move designed to end the current practice of relying mostly on surveys taken of affected residents.
With a patchwork of policies unique to each neighborhood program, it's no wonder that managing the program has become nearly impossible.
The work plan also includes finally moving forward with the recommendations made more than two years ago by a consultant, Dixon Resources, to implement a paid-parking system for downtown Palo Alto. Because of the staffing shortages in the transportation office and higher priority placed on the residential parking programs, the important Dixon recommendations were unfortunately put aside.
Yet those recommendations are essential to moving beyond simply protecting neighborhoods from the cars of nearby employees. The plan outlined in great detail the benefits of re-establishing paid parking downtown on streets and in city lots and garages, with technology-enabled adjustable pricing and time limits that respond to the parking supply and demand in different areas.
It recommended "smart" parking meters, capable of accepting credit cards and mobile payments, on University and Hamilton avenues and the side-streets connecting them. Pay-station kiosks would be used on other streets and in parking lots.
Palo Alto is far behind other cities in implementing modern parking and transportation strategies, not because the solutions are unknown or beyond our abilities but because city has not devoted the resources to getting the job done. Instead, it has labored over the RPP program and pursued controversial traffic-calming measures that confuse and divide the community.
We hope Shikada and Kamhi get the council's enthusiastic and clear support for moving forward with the proposed work plan. With new leadership and full staffing, it's time to stop studying and start implementing the reforms that have been sitting on a shelf for the last two years.