For years, Palo Alto's efforts to address citizen frustrations about worsening traffic congestion and parking shortages have fallen well short of ambitions and expectations of the City Council, which has been designating transportation as a top priority every year for the past six years.
The city's long-planned expansion of services never took off; its new bike boulevards have garnered a mixed reception from the community; and its residential parking programs remain clunky, inconsistent and frustrating for both customers and City Hall administrators.
With his first proposed budget as city manager, Ed Shikada is hoping to change that. The budget, which the Finance Committee began reviewing Wednesday night, creates an Office of Transportation, a department that will debut with 13.5 positions and that plans to add two more in the coming months. The goal is to give more prominence and power to an operation that up until now was a division in the Department of Planning and Community Environment.
The Finance Committee approved creating the new office, along with increased funding for the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association, the nonprofit charged with reducing the rate of solo commuters.
By breaking transportation out from planning department, Shikada is hoping to give the division both more prominence and more power to get things done. What has previously been primarily a "planning function" will become one that can both plan and implement projects, he said. As such, it will be "significantly greater than it was before," Shikada said.
The committee also approved Shikada's request to add two positions to the new office: a transportation engineer and a parking manager who will help administer the city's multitude of parking programs and its small shuttle program. Shikada is also recruiting for a chief transportation official to head the new office and to help expand the shuttle program.
The city is also preparing to reform its residential parking programs, with the goal of making them more consistent and simpler to administer.
All three council members on the Finance Committee supported the creation of the new office and the additional positions. Councilwoman Alison Cormack cited a recent citizen survey that showed traffic issues topping the list of local concerns.
"It's really on top of everyone's list," Cormack told staff during the meeting. "In general, the community is doing a good job in being patient and you guys are going a good job trying to hold things together and not have them fall apart."
The new office will also be the lead driver of Palo Alto's new transportation work plan, which the Policy and Service Committee approved last week.
The Finance Committee also voted Wednesday to raise the city's contribution to the Palo Alto Transportation Association from the current level of $480,000 to $660,000. The funding is expected to come from higher fees for employee permits to park at public garages and lots. Staff estimated that a 7.5% increase in permit fees would support the greater contribution.
The added investment in transportation is coming at a time when the overall number of positions at City Hall is on the decline. Shikada's budget for fiscal year 2020, which begins on July 1, recommends eliminating eight-and-a-half full-time positions as well as keeping several others vacant for the year to save money.
Even so, the general fund (which funds most basic services, not including utilities) is set to increase from $214.5 million in the current fiscal year to $232.1 million — a 9.5% jump that city officials attribute largely to growing labor costs. The overall budget, which includes utilities, is projected to decrease from $711.2 million to $699.2 million.
The committee also signed off Wednesday on proposed changes to various utility rates, which collectively will add about 5%, or $15.65, to the average monthly utility bill, taking it from $312.15 to $327.80 for all major utilities.
The biggest jump comes in electricity, where the city plans to raise rates by 8% to pay for higher transmission costs, capital investments and new renewable-energy projects. In addition, staff have reported a reduction in electricity usage, which requires the city to spread out the fixed costs of running the utility among fewer customers.
The 8% rate hike will add $2.98 to the average residential electricity bill, taking it from $54.33 to $57.31, according to staff.
Gas rates are also on the rise. The budget calls for raising gas rates by 5%, a change that Utilities Department staff are attributing largely to rising construction costs for gas main replacements and the cross-bore inspection program. The rate change will add $4.91 to the average monthly gas bill, increasing it from $58.48 to $63.39.
The committee will continue its review of the proposed budget on May 23 and conclude it on May 28. The City Council is set to adopt the budget next month.