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.