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Earlier this summer the Seattle Department of Transportation quietly shot down another HALA recommendation; last summer, of course, mayor Ed Murray famously or infamously, depending on your POV, already shot down the HALA recommendation to ease up housing code restrictions in single family zones.

This summer’s second HALA casualty deals with a topic almost as sensitive as single family zones: Parking.

In a June 30 memo that received scant media attention, SDOT shot down a unanimous HALA recommendation (see page 40) to test out a “Parking Benefits District.”

A PBD, an idea being pushed by Capitol Hill Housing as part of its Eco District proposal, is a neighborhood zone that allows the community to keep revenues generated from increased parking rates and/or from new metered hours; currently, and this wouldn’t change for existing revenue streams, the city keeps parking meter and city lot dollars. So, for example, under the PBD recommendation, if the city decided to charge an additional .50 for parking in Capitol Hill and/or during new, extend metered hours (say increasing the price to from $4.00 to $4.50 in a new 8pm to 11pm time slot in North Capitol Hill), Capitol Hill would keep that extra revenue. In the PBD system, a neighborhood group would determine how to spend the money—though, state law would require the revenue to go toward transportation related projects, say something as literal as street improvements, something as just as low-income bus fares, and something as tangential as green space…maybe. (I live on Capitol Hill and, as a community member, I participated in the Capitol Hill Housing's "Gearshift" community forum in late May where attendees broke up into focus groups on a batch of potential neighborhood initiatives; I sat in on the PBD discussion. One idea that came up was to spend the revenue on affordable housing, but the SDOT rep said that probably wouldn't fly because it wasn't...supposedly...linked to transportation.)

The idea—and the reason a PBD was part of the HALA proposal in the first place (HALA is the mayor’s housing affordability plan)—was this: Getting rid of parking requirements would lower the price of new housing. Traditionally, neighborhoods don’t like getting rid of parking requirements for new housing because existing residents worry it will make it more difficult to find a place to park. However, the HALA idea was that creating a PBD would get a community invested in making parking a hot commodity because the community would get revenue from it.

While adding homes but not parking may seem like an intractable situation, “Performance Based” parking as SDOT’s current program is called—charging more at peak times and adjusting the amount of time someone can park based on demand—has worked around the city to match SDOT’s goal of having one to two parking spots open per blockface, or in the parlance, meeting an “occupancy target range of 70 to 85 percent.”

A compelling concern SDOT raised in its memo shooting down the PBD recommendation was about equity. Basically: PBDs would simply generate new revenue for hot neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill and Downtown, creating a redundant loop where destination neighborhoods get more and more privileged rather than sharing the wealth along the lines of a traditional progressive tax system.

There are two thoughtful rejoinders from advocates of PBDs. First, PBDs only secure new revenues; the existing revenues from parking meters and public lots in neighborhoods would still go to the general fund, and would be spread around citywide.

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Second, creating community support for priced parking (most neighborhoods don’t charge for parking now) could create a new revenue stream for neighborhoods that doesn’t currently exist. In a memo to the city council supporting PBDs, Capitol Hill Housing CEO Christopher Persons wrote: “A parking benefit district pilot offers a means for building the political will to extend metered hours to meet SDOT’s performance based parking criteria and overarching parking program goals.”

And Sightline’s Alan Durning, a HALA committee member (and, more specifically, the HALA committee member who pushed the PBD idea), articulated this point earlier this month on Sightline’s blog , writing:

Opposition to parking meters remains adamant in most neighborhoods. West Seattle, which SDOT mentions as a likely loser from PBDs because it has no metered parking, has no meters not because they’re unwarranted; it has no meters because West Seattleites have opposed them. But if West Seattle got to keep the money, things could be different.

The same is true in many of Seattle’s neighborhoods, especially if SDOT designed PBD systems for restricted parking zones, where it could begin auctioning parking placards and badges to residents and visitors. Indeed, if SDOT authorized parking benefit districts and offered a 50-50 split of net revenue with their host neighborhoods, citywide parking revenue would likely grow much faster than without PBDs.

By the way, SDOT disputes Durning’s slightly bitchy aside about West Seattle’s unwarranted lack of meters, but, he may be on to something.

Seattle City Council freshman Rob Johnson, who PubliCola endorsed precisely with these kinds of nerdy transportation infrastructure issues in mind, tells Fizz he “will be pushing back,” against SDOT’s dismissal of PBDs.

“We need to create more allies in the effort to manage the city’s on-street parking spaces.” (There are more than 500,000.) “The brilliance of Parking Benefits Districts is that they help us use our streets more efficiently while also raising and dedicating revenue to important projects within small business districts.”

Capitol Hill Housing, which applauded last year’s HALA recommendation for PBDs and successfully lobbied the city council to pass a budget item last year calling for SDOT to study the idea, responded to SDOT’s unfavorable findings with a memo of its own.

They addressed SDOT’s equity concern about spreading the wealth as well, writing that some of the PBD funds could conceivably go to “reduced-price transit passes for low-income residents and the lower wage earners working in the vicinity of the extended meters." They added:

This would serve the interests of low income people and promote greater transit use. Another suggestion is to use parking fees to develop a program for safe rides home for late night shifts when transit service is limited, a program that would have a strong nexus with the extended late night parking meter hours.

The council’s transportation committee, where Johnson sits as vice chair, is set to discuss PBDs, next Tuesday, September 20.

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