Paula Hammond, Washington state Transportation Department secretary, made some news by suggesting at last week's Sound Transit Board retreat that parking structures around stations should be free for anyone, even people not taking transit. The response was negative, from the blogosphere anyway, and fellow board members didn't seem to think the idea made sense either.
While the board tried to tackle the thorny issues of parking around transit and how the agency supports transit oriented development, the discussion seemed to show the deeper fissures in the foundation of the agency's effort to deliver rail and transit to the region.
Parking has attracted a lot of attention lately with the dust-up over Sound Transit's plans to build lots of parking at Northgate. It isn't an easy issue. Many of the local governments represented at the retreat raised reasonable concerns about their constituents' frustration at missing trains because they can't find a place to park.
On the other hand, there is the aversion of many to building parking around transit at all, preferring instead to leave land that might be used for parking for housing instead. The argument for more more housing density around transit is a lynch pin for many transit advocates in the region, and filling up that valuable land for car storage is anathema. But mayors and councilmembers of cities outside of Seattle have a different perspective on parking, seeing it as an important selling point to persuade residents of their communities to use light rail.
The problem with using free or cheap parking as a carrot to lure people to use transit is that it is an expensive use of the taxpayer dollars — and it was the taxpayers' contribution that Hammond used to rationalize allowing free parking for all. It's true that parking might entice someone to add light rail or a bus into their commuting plans, but it hardly makes rail and other transit modes the transformative effort intended by light rail supporters. Using free parking to subsidize mass transit is a little like trying to boost attendance at an AA meeting by holding it during happy hour.
The point of investing in massive transit infrastructure should not be to subsidize what people are already having to do: drive long distances between the places they want and need to be. Instead the goal of spending tax dollars on rail is building a future when the things people want and need are closer together or linked by mass transit. That's why the agency also tackled the question of whether it should be more aggressive about developing transit oriented development, which would begin to put new growth closer to transit infrastructure. That discussion is ongoing, as is the one about parking.
The answer is to plan for the future not subsidize the past.