After talking for years about the need to reduce the rate of solo drivers to downtown Palo Alto, the City Council this week agreed to back words with funds when it voted to contribute $100,000 toward the city's nascent traffic-fighting nonprofit.
In unanimously agreeing to invest in the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association (TMA), the council acknowledged that the $100,000 contribution is not enough to make a difference in the city's commute patterns. Yet council members also agreed that the initial investment is necessary to jump-start the TMA, which they hope will ultimately expand and become a self-sustaining organization. Above all, the investment was a vote of confidence in the new group, which incorporated as a nonprofit in January.
The goal of the new nonprofit is to reduce by 30 percent the single-occupant vehicle rate by offering incentives to downtown commuters to carpool or shift to other modes of transportation.
A recent survey of downtown employers indicated that about 5,500 of them currently drive alone to get to and from work, according to the TMA's new business plan. This means to reach 30 percent, the organization would need to shift the commute patterns of about 1,650 employees.
According to the group's business plan, which the council enthusiastically endorsed Monday, Caltrain and regional transit agencies such as the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), Samtrans and AC Transit (which administers the two Dumbarton Express lines) will play a leading role in the effort. The plan calls for shifting about 1,000 commuters to transit by offering full (and later, partial) subsidies for transit use.
Rob George, district manager at Philz Coffee and president of the TMA's board of directors, said the group is now in negotiations with Caltrain about possibly allowing small downtown businesses to purchase Go Passes for their employees -- discounted Caltrain tickets that are typically sold in bulk to large employers.
The goal, George said, is to make the train "a reliable and affordable option to move in and out of Palo Alto."
The organization is also encouraging carpooling, having recently partnered with the San Francisco-based company Scoop, which offers an app that matches commuters on trip at a time. So far, the results have been promising. As of last Friday, 320 people registered for Scoop (above the TMA's target of 300), George said.
Other strategies include encouraging workers to use the city's shuttles and subsidizing "last mile" and "first mile" programs offered by transportation-network companies like Lyft. These programs would target workers who don't live near transit hubs and for whom Caltrain and VTA buses are not a viable option.
Though the TMA is optimistic about meeting its goals, the business plan also notes that attaining a mode shift is difficult because the cost of driving and parking is "by far the most 'affordable' as well as convenient option for many employees," which means significant incentives will need to be provided to get people out of cars.
"The vast majority of the 854 downtown employees are small and cannot afford additional costs of doing business such as subsidizing employers' commutes, whether by transit or other means," the business plan states.
The plan notes that if the discounted fares for Caltrain are achieved through the Go Pass program, transit will become affordable in the long term with little or no subsidy from the TMA.
In the interim, however, "significant investments must be made to bring about parity while, at the same time, realigning parking availability, location and pricing and creating more holistic home-to-work options," the plan states.
The council agreed, with no dissent, that the TMA's mission is critical and merits support from the city and that the biggest wildcard is funding.
Councilman Tom DuBois argued that the city and the TMA needs to do more to get a buy-in from local businesses.
"This is a tool for businesses to improve the impacts they're having downtown," DuBois said. "I think we need to find a way to encourage them to pay for more of it -- to really see the benefits to themselves of participating."
Mayor Pat Burt agreed that a great investment will be needed but argued that it's "wishful thinking that encouragement will somehow come up with adequate funding," noting that the city hasn't seen too much interest from the broader business community to contribute funds toward the traffic-reduction effort.
To that end, the city is now exploring two potential sources of long-term funding for transportation programs. One is a local tax measure that would appear on the November ballot, with the proceeds exclusively devoted to transportation improvements. A council committee is in the process of surveying residents and determining whether the tax measure would have a solid chance of passing.
Another option is parking revenues. Palo Alto is in the process of performing a study evaluating the possibility of having paid parking in downtown parking facilities.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss on Monday expressed support for this idea, noting that current parking meters typically accept credit cards and are fairly convenient and easy to use.
"Most of us who looked at this for a while, it's no question that parking is not free, however you look at it," Kniss said. "We have 'free parking,' but someone is subsidizing it."
The council ultimately voted 8-0, with Councilman Marc Berman absent, to approve a $100,000 contribution to the new TMA. Shortly before the vote, downtown resident Neilson Buchanan compared the newly formed organization to a "little pony," when compared with the "thoroughbred horse" at Stanford University, which has been wildly successful in switching students and faculty from cars to other modes of transportation.
Buchanan urged the council to "let the little pony run the best it can," even as he acknowledged that it would take much more than $100,000 a year to make a significant difference.
"I think the person having to step up with the money will primarily have to be the City in the early years," Buchanan said. "I hope that the next council will take a really hard look at giving the pony of the small TMA a chance to flourish."
George also stressed the critical need for the city and the TMA to work together on achieving a reduction in single-occupant vehicles while continuing to promote a vibrant downtown environment.
"There's nothing more exciting than thinking of a TMA that continues to grow and support as the city grows," he told the council.