Contractor errs, sells too many parking permits | News | Palo Alto Online |


Contractor errs, sells too many parking permits

More downtown employees than intended bought permits in five residential areas closest to central downtown

An error in implementing downtown Palo Alto's evolving Residential Preferential Parking program, which aims to eventually stop commuters from parking in residential neighborhoods, caused the exact opposite to happen this summer: Too many permits were sold to employees wanting to park their cars in five out the area's 10 parking zones.

In one zone, the number of permits sold was 70 percent higher than the city-planned limit.

City staff noticed the error in June, after responding to a request for information from John Guislin, a Crescent Park resident who served on the committee that helped create the parking program.

Debuting in September 2015, the initial phase of the downtown Residential Preferential Parking program brought instant relief to the neighborhoods of Downtown North, Professorville and others that had been flooded with cars each day because of the streets' free all-day parking.

In April 2016, the program entered its second phase, which split downtown's residential areas into 10 zones and issued zone-specific permits to employees, with the goal of distributing their vehicles throughout downtown and reducing congestion in the areas closest to University Avenue and downtown's commercial core. Before the second phase kicked off, the City Council approved a permit quota for each particular zone and authorized staff to sell up to 1,400 permits total to employees.

However, according to data that the Weekly obtained last week, in the second phase, 277 employee permits were issued for zones that had already reached their limit, thanks to what the city called an error in inputting data. The areas where the mistakes were particularly glaring are just north and just south of the commercial core — the very neighborhoods where parking shortages have been most acute.

In Zone 2, which is located in Downtown North and includes a stretch of Hawthorne Avenue between Alma and Webster streets, the city sold 174 permits, exceeding by 63 the authorized limit of 111. In Zone 1, which is just south of Zone 2 and which includes Everett Avenue, the city sold 119 permits; 50 above the allowed limit of 69.

A similar glitch occurred in University South, where the city oversold permits in three zones just south of Hamilton Avenue. The biggest difference took place in Zone 5, which includes Forest and Homer avenues, between Ramona and Guinda streets, and a small section of Hamilton, between Webster and Guinda. This area was eligible for 162 employee permits. The city sold 259, or 97 above the cap.

In Zone 6, which includes portions of Homer and Channing avenues and Zone 7, the city oversold employee permits by 49 and 18, respectively.

Those errors notwithstanding, the city did not sell beyond its 1,400-permit cap — issuing a total of 1,155 employee permits as of late August.

That's because the city sold relatively few permits for those neighborhoods that are more distant from downtown's commercial core. The northernmost zone, known as Zone 3, which runs from Palo Alto Avenue to Hawthorne, was eligible for 208 employee permits; the city sold only 45.

And in the geographically broad Zone 8, which runs through Professorville and includes Lincoln and Kingsley avenues, between Alma and Guinda streets, the city sold 125 permits — well below the authorized limit of 337.

While city planning staff caught the error in early summer, it wasn't publicly disclosed until Aug. 28, when City Manager James Keene alluded to it while announcing the upcoming Sept. 30 expiration date of the Phase 2 parking permits. Keene attributed the mistake to the city's contractor, SP Plus, which was hired to create the online permit-sales system. He also noted that because other zones had "less demand, this mistake did not affect compliance with the overall limits set by the council resolution."

Staff considered revoking the erroneously issued permits when the mistake was discovered and replacing them with permits for other zones, Keene said, but ultimately, they decided against it.

"Because the permit expiration is so close and all employees would have to get new permits by the end of September, it seemed chaotic to try to do this swap out at this point in time," Keene said. "We apologize for that unfortunate error by our contractor."

Guislin, the resident who requested the permit data that led to the discovery, called the blunder "a gross error." He acknowledged that it's hard to gauge what impact the mistake had on downtown's parking availability (planning staff does not conduct parking surveys over the summer), but said the issue of cars "bunching" around the downtown area still exists.

Despite the glitch, the city did not receive complaints over the summer from residents in the five affected zones, city Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello said. That helped influence the city's response, he said.

"Our plan was, if we did hear concerns about over-saturation and parking shortages, we would do an immediate occupancy count and, if needed, we'd do permit repossession and re-issuance," Mello said.

The many variables of the downtown permit program appear to have contributed to the contractor's mistakes. Unlike the city's first parking-permit program, in College Terrace, which sold permits only to residents for a set rate, the downtown scheme has different rules and rates for residents and employees. In addition, it includes special provisions for low-income employees, who get priority in purchasing permits and lower rates. The recently introduced zone structure added another factor.

The new system required the contractor "to manually manipulate the permit constraints that were set up by the zones," said Mello. He noted that when staff had accepted a bid with SP Plus several years ago, "We didn't really anticipate the level of complexity that the program would have."

The council approved a three-year contract for $284,068 with SP Plus for managing the permit-sales system in April 2015. The contract, Mello said, does not have any provisions that would allow the city to penalize the vendor for not following the council's guidelines.

However, after noticing the errors, staff is preparing to step up its oversight of the program. Keene assured the council that a mistake of this sort will not occur again. And Mello told the Weekly that staff will be more proactive in monitoring the parking program as it enters its next phase.

"We're paying much more attention to the workings of the program and staying on top of the contractor, to the point where we'll be getting weekly reports," Mello told the Weekly.

The city is not ready to replace the vendor just yet. However, staff is moving ahead with plans to adopt a new permit-sales system — requiring a new request-for-proposals from interested contractors — that would be more comprehensive in scope and would allow permit sales for all of the city's Residential Preferential Parking districts (the city had recently introduced such programs in Evergreen Park and Southgate neighborhoods), as well for public garages and lots.

If things go as planned, the new system will be available by the middle of next year, Mello said.

As for downtown's program, Guislin pointed to the fact that the city sold 245 fewer employee permits than the 1,400 authorized in Phase 2 as evidence that the council should shrink the number of worker permits in future phases.

"The idea is to take the business commuters off the residential streets, so that number should be reduced, by my logic," Guislin said.


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


12 people like this
Posted by Cynic
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 8, 2017 at 7:34 am

There are plenty of available parking places in Zone 1 during the day. These arbitrary caps are much too low.

And why do the uber-rich property owners here get free parking? They should pay the same as everyone else.

19 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 8, 2017 at 7:46 am

I am not in the least surprised that they made errors. The whole thing is too complicated. I wonder how many new members of staff were employed to sort this out and even then the rules get so complicated that nobody can understand any of it.

22 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 8, 2017 at 8:00 am

Parking permits should be free. The fact that they're *selling* them means that it's more about government employees getting paid than implementing an actual *solution*.
This wasn't a mistake! It's people making money off of regulations. It's blatant fraud being committed by our government. How can they good citizens of Palo Alto not see this?

"Preferential Parking" is a hoax designed to generate revenue from overpriced permits and predatory parking tickets.

24 people like this
Posted by Stew Pid
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 8, 2017 at 11:18 am

How about we give all the City staff involved a bonus and double their pension?

33 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 8, 2017 at 11:30 am

Good work Citizen Guislin!!!

11 people like this
Posted by Cash Cow
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 8, 2017 at 11:44 am

Another error in the city's favor. Go back 3 spaces and pay all the contractors and all the employees more. $$$

22 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 8, 2017 at 12:16 pm

Annette is a registered user.

Does the mistake maker have any connection to PAUSD?

Palo Alto's favorite journalists sure have been busy disclosing pricey foibles lately. Surely by this point more and more people are wondering how so much can go so wrong in a city that prides itself on itself so very much.

22 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 8, 2017 at 12:21 pm

I am sure we can hire a consultant to resolve the complexity of problem..

23 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 8, 2017 at 12:27 pm

Let's not forget the 4.5 months extra PA Utilities charged us all $25 for a drought that had officially ended and then lowered the drought surcharge to $9 when people complained netting another $180,000 (20K households) on top of the $2,250,000 for the original 4.5 months.

$2,430,000 + $6,000,000 for PAUSD plus the parking.... pretty soon it adds up to real money.

By the way, why are the RR crossing guards still there? I thought the city was replacing them with cameras and had already awarded a contract.

3 people like this
Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Sep 8, 2017 at 12:30 pm


It is the employees that are paying for permits. There is no way they should be allowed to park for free. Where have you been the last 5 years? Maybe you should move from Midtown to Downtown. Then you would change your tune.

41 people like this
Posted by Fed up
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 8, 2017 at 12:42 pm

Perhaps it's time to fire all the policymaking employees (city manager and assistants, city attorney, etc.) for incompetence, thereby rescinding any pensions they might have received if they could actually do the job for which they were hired. We could then replace all of them with two chimpanzees, who might actually do a better job.

25 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 8, 2017 at 12:42 pm

WE (City of Palo Alto and PAUSD) seem to be wallowing in discombobulation lately. We have TWO assistant city managers who presumably have some experience and a series of departments with managers. So why is this so difficult? There are standard programs that track data for any one topic so why isn't a standard program being used to keep a status on whatever requires a status?
It is so disheartening in this day and age when there are so many computer tools and we still end up with gross errors. Who are the people that are hired to perform these simple office tasks? A contractor - a contractor is required to cover their errors on their nickel - not ours. If they made a mistake then they have to correct it out of their profit. It is called a penalty.

15 people like this
Posted by And more
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 8, 2017 at 1:01 pm

The city is doing TWO surveys to find out what we think of city services. I guess they cant read what people write to the council, and speakers at city meetings.

The questionnaire about opinions of Code Enforcement is so hard to read and so restrictive, it's a scandal. Clearly they don't really want to know.

20 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 8, 2017 at 1:04 pm

Annette is a registered user.

Seriously, if there's insufficient oversight on something as ordinary as a parking program, it's mind-boggling (and scary) to think what might happen with a truly complicated program. Grade crossings, for instance.

After the hijacked CC meeting on January 30, someone posted the following advice: WAKE UP PALO ALTO.

2 people like this
Posted by Anneke
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 8, 2017 at 1:18 pm

Question: As a neighbor who has had builders work on his house for more than 14 years, is it allowed for this neighbor to purchase multiple resident (green) permits for his builders?

Because if the above is possible, and it appears as such, then the numbers are even more skewed.

17 people like this
Posted by Novelera
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 8, 2017 at 2:33 pm

Novelera is a registered user.

I'm wondering why issuing parking permits was even delegated to a "contractor". This expense is now added to all the funds the city spends on "consultants" because our highly paid employees can't do the work themselves.

13 people like this
Posted by Really
a resident of University South
on Sep 8, 2017 at 3:45 pm

They decided to not revoke the oversold permits because the expiration is so soon. Really? They expire at the end of march 2018.

There were no complaints over the summer as so many people are on vacation. I've noticed since school started the parking is getting bad again. Especially in the area of Channing house where it seems ALL of their employees take up our parking.

14 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 8, 2017 at 9:51 pm

"This expense is now added to all the funds the city spends on "consultants" because our highly paid employees can't do the work themselves."

They are too highly paid to do any work at all. As any management consultant can tell you, it is a misapplication of resources if employees being paid executive-level salaries are doing useful work.

5 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Sep 9, 2017 at 10:57 am

I was wondering why there is no parking in Zone 5.

5 people like this
Posted by @Really
a resident of University South
on Sep 9, 2017 at 11:03 am

The article states that the employee permits expire Sept. 30th.

8 people like this
Posted by Nancy
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 9, 2017 at 11:16 am

I've noticed an increase of cars/no parking available in the 300 block of Webster.

5 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Oct 6, 2017 at 7:53 pm

Do we know, for sure, whether the "contractor" didn't oversell post-9/30 permits?

3 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Oct 11, 2017 at 8:05 pm

Anyone know how to get the post Sept. 30th numbers?

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

Umami Burger calls it quits in downtown Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 14 comments | 8,067 views

Please Apply So We Can Reject You!
By John Raftrey and Lori McCormick | 6 comments | 2,656 views

Chocolate – I Love Thee. Let Me Count The Ways.
By Laura Stec | 3 comments | 1,787 views

Couples and Premarital : "Who we are . . . depends in part . . . on who we love."
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,607 views

City’s “priorities” have become meaningless – and a waste of time
By Diana Diamond | 11 comments | 1,404 views