If any of you have taken a national survey, you know the first question is something along the line of, “Do you think the country is on the right track?” Answer yes or no. I am posing the same question locally, “Do you think Palo Alto is going in the right direction (on the right track)?”
My concern about this town is that nearly every project, every proposal seems to take so long to be completed. Here’s just a part of my list:
• Castilleja school expansion – Six years before council approval a few weeks ago.
•Bridge across Highway 101 – 10+ years of discussion – and an additional 12 years -- after the council agreed to the construction.
•The Pope-Chaucer Bridge across San Francisquito Creek – The 1998 flood led to the creation of Joint Powers Authority that finally decided to build a bridge a couple of years ago -- scheduled to start in 2024! – but only after a new Newell Avenue bridge is completed. The plans call for a 130-foot bridge for $9 million (2019 cost estimate). I am guessing we will have a little bridge finished by 2030—32 years after the flooding. How in the world did California ever get the 1.7 mile-long Golden Gate Bridge completed in only four years?
• Improvement of traffic flow on Embarcadero and left-hand turn lane on El Camino to Embarcadero. Never started.
• Encryption -- allowing the public and press to listen to the radio transmissions between police officers and the dispatchers -- which was in effect for 70 years, until January 2021, when Police Chief Robert Jonsen decided on his own, without council approval, that these broadcasts of police activity in this city would no longer occur. Since that time, the council has had one informal discussion on it, and now has been waiting to have the encryption discussion formally agendized, but so far, no sign of such an agenda item has appeared yet on the agenda months later.
• Sensor system and overhead LED lights at both Bryant Street and High Street city garages to let motorists know the number of empty parking spaces in the garage and the number per floor – council authorized appending on this in 2016. Not started yet.
• Delays for city permits -- Ongoing.
•Grade separations -- From 2015 through 2018, the City Council had a Rail Committee consisting of four council members. They analyzed several issues, among the m the separation of auto crossings from railroad tracks. In January 2019, the City Council decided to change from the Rail Committee to the Committee of the Whole, so issues were addressed by all council members. In April 2021, the City Council revived the Rail Committee, this time with three council members. Their last meeting was on June 15, 2022. Several consultants for the raill grade-separation crossings have been hired over the years.
For years, Palo Altans have talked about the “Palo Alto Process” – some with pride, others just joking about it. The process refers to the fact that Palo Alto is, well, notorious in a way, for taking a long time to think and decide about issues. One former council member explained to me with a very solemn face some years ago that residents know this community is smart, and if we disagree about something, well, we must take time to get to the right answer. So, council members deliberate until they find the perfect solution. That notion came to a rest a couple years ago but still decisions come after weeks or months.
Nevertheless, while a few of these issues are the result of council delays, most of them are caused by staff and managerial delays. There doesn’t seem to me any urgency to get projects completed. Why? I can only guess, but in most private businesses, deadlines are deadlines and managers and employees adhere to them. An “I’m working on it” staff responses do not suffice. Nor does taking six months to a year to complete a report.
For example, the continual traffic flow tie-up problems near and at the Embarcadero Road-El Camino intersection: Those first surfaced in 2008, when Trader Joe’s opened. Jaime Rodriguez was chief transportation official at that time, and he told me to solve it would require dealing with the city, the state traffic officials (who are in charge of El Camino issues) and Stanford University, I guess because Embarcadero feeds into Galvez Street on the Stanford campus, but that doesn’t seem much of an issue. Rodriguez did not solve it, nor did he get the two traffic lights on Embarcadero coordinated (one at the entrance to Town & Country, and the other yards away, which is a pedestrian-activated signal for Paly students). He resigned in 2015 but lo and behold, the then-city manager hired him as a consultant to the tune of thousands and thousands of dollars, a job in which the Embarcadero traffic congestion remained unresolved. I guess the city has forgotten that this traffic tie-up issue still exists.
Please, council members, don’t accept City Hall excuses like the delays are because of the pandemic, or budget cuts, etc. These projects have been lingering for several years. And some of them, like sensor signals at garages, require only an outside contractor to get the job done.
In my estimation, we need a council that will impose their deadlines on the staff. I want city employees to realizes the council is in charge of this city, because the city manager (and staff) report to the council and mayor. Lately it seems the other way around – more like a staff-led city. We’ve got good people on the council, and I know they can do it. We don’t need a continuance of a delay, delay, attitude.