Seeking to preserve a fragile and fraying coalition of cities, Palo Alto officials on Monday night rallied behind a proposal for divvying up the roughly $6 billion in transportation funds that would be raised by a proposed November tax measure.
In approving the plan by a unanimous vote, members of the Palo Alto City Council acknowledged that the proposal, which was crafted over a series of meeting by mayors from nine West Valley and North County cities (Palo Alto, Mountain View, Campbell, Cupertino, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Los Gatos, Saratoga and Sunnyvale) remains tentative and subject to revisions.
But much like their counterparts in Mountain View, Campbell and Cupertino, Palo Alto officials agreed this week to support the plan, which they hope will improve their bargaining power in negotiations with the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), the agency shepherding the tax measure.
The proposal calls for allocating $1.2 billion, or about 20 percent of the total funding, for the extension of BART to San Jose and for devoting $1.3 billion to Caltrain with $900 million from that total devoted specifically to "grade separation" (submerging crossing roads under the train tracks, or vice versa) in the northern part of the county.
The plan calls calls for devoting $1 billion to improving expressways; $500 million for congestion relief, transit and mode shifts; $500 million for bicycle and pedestrian improvements; and $1 billion in flexible "local streets and roads" program, which would allow local cities to take care of local needs.
But even as the Palo Alto council backed the tentative proposal, the Monday discussion highlighted the challenges of keeping the nascent coalition together. Though all of the cities in the alliance are trying to keep San Jose from getting the lion's share of the funds (as has been the case for the last two transportation measures), tactical disagreements abound both between and within the participating cities.
Mayor Pat Burt, who has been representing Palo Alto in the negotiations, said Monday that some officials from the West Valley opted not to move along with an endorsement because they wanted a plan more catered to their "parochial" needs, while others seemed content with the process currently in place by the VTA.
In Los Gatos, which has been taking part in the recent talks between the West Valley and North County cities, council members made both arguments last week before voting 5-0 not to back the specific funding plan. Los Gatos Councilwoman Marcia Jensen said it's too early to get into specifics about funding.
"I think it's premature for this council to adopt or endorse any allocation of funds, which may or may not be available, depending on whether or not there will be a ballot measure and depending on whether or not it will be successful," Jensen said.
Los Gatos Councilman Steve Leonardis said he was "primarily concerned with what we can do for Los Gatos" and not concerned about BART and other projects "outside the community"
"I'd like the control and the dollars to stay in our community as much as possible," Leonardis said.
Los Gatos is not alone in its skepticism toward the regional approach. Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the business-advocacy group that is helping to spearhead the measure, said Monday that officials from the West Valley cities of Saratoga and Monte Sereno have sent similar signals about opposing the specific funding plan. These cities and the cities in North County are "not finding common ground in that approach," Guardino told the Palo Alto council on Monday.
But the other two West Valley cities in the tentative alliance Cupertino and Campbell took the opposite stance from Los Gatos and agreed to support the coalition's plan. Much like Mountain View, where the council voted 6-1 last month to support the funding plan, the councils in Cupertino and Campbell last week voted to do the same.
"Our biggest voice is (when) we're heard together," Campbell Councilman Jeffrey Cristina said at the Feb. 2 meeting, shortly before the council voted to endorse the plan. "If we start making little changes, that starts fracturing our voice and it starts making it where we don't have any say."
In Cupertino, the council likewise took the collective approach, despite a general consensus that the $500 million being allocated for West Valley projects is probably insufficient to cover the area's needs. Cupertino Mayor Barry Chang said he supports the proposal "reluctantly," given the recent compromises, but emphasized that a united voice is needed to ensure the region gets its due.
"This is probably the first time that I know that North County and West Valley cities are working together because we know if we don't work together, the southern cities will gobble up most of the money and we won't get anything," Chang said at the Feb. 2 meeting of the Cupertino council. "It's been proven in the past and this is why we will work together."
Chang made a similar argument Monday when he attended the council meeting in Palo Alto and urged the City Council to back the funding proposal.
Mountain View Councilman John McAlister also urged his Palo Alto counterparts to continue the collaboration so that the cities in North County will have "a stronger voice and a little power behind it."
In discussing the proposed allocations, several Palo Alto council members said they would prefer a few changes, whether it means increasing funding for transit and mode shifts (as suggested by Councilman Cory Wolbach) or shifting money from the BART-to-San Jose extension to congestion-relief measures in the northern part of the county (as proposed by Councilwoman Karen Holman).
In the end, however, they took the same approach as Mountain View, Campbell and Cupertino and agreed to set these quibbles aside for the time being.
The plan's inclusion of $900 million for grade separation along the Caltrain corridor made it particularly palatable in Palo Alto, where the project has emerged as a top transportation priority. And while council members generally agreed that the measure should explicitly cap the spending for BART, they opted not to press the issue during the current period of delicate negotiations.
Vice Mayor Greg Scharff said it's important for Palo Alto to have a "collaborative working relationship" with the West County and North County cities.
"I don't think this is the time for hard caps," Scharff said. "I don't think this is the time for drawing lines in the sand."
Councilman Greg Schmid concurred and noted that the project list, while imperfect, is relatively aligned with the city's priorities.
"The proposal doesn't have everything we want, but there are things that are important to us that are in the there grade separation and mode sharing and it seems to me, there is a real, unique opportunity in there," Schmid said.