Dreaming of A Universal Parking Impact Fee

By Dan Bertolet October 12, 2010

West Seattle Safeway adjacent to the recently completed Mural Apartments

Seattle, like most U.S. cities, faces a Catch-22 roadblock to reducing car dependence. Buildings must have ample parking because there's no reasonable alternative to driving, but all that parking perpetuates travel habits and land use patterns that sabotage alternative transportation and further lock us into unsustainable car dependence.

The only way public policy will break this impasse is if it hits people where it matters---in their pocketbooks. So here's my proposal: a region-wide impact fee on every parking stall on private property.

I now ask the reader to suspend disbelief about political realities and hang with me for the moment.

Parking stalls enable driving, and thus indirectly contribute to all the negative impacts associated with car use, such as accident injuries, air pollution, noise, toxic runoff, fossil fuel dependence, greenhouse gas emissions, the loss of farmland, forests, and habitat to sprawl, the huge expense of road building and maintenance, bad urban design, and a degraded public realm. And since the vast majority of those negative impacts are born by everyone, car user or not, it follows that those who use parking stalls are not paying for the full cost of their actions.

This is precisely the scenario for which impact fees are appropriate. Essentially, an impact fee is a tax that corrects for market distortions caused by externalized costs, and thereby promotes market sanity and fairness.

Take for example the debate over raising on-street parking meter rates. A parking impact fee would increase the cost of doing business for stores that have big parking lots, and that cost would end up in their retail prices. This would offset the incentive of the "free" parking, and level the playing field for businesses whose customers use on-street parking or don't drive.

A parking stall impact fee would also discourage "land banking" with surface parking lots, a practice that drives speculation, and leaves gaping holes in the urban landscape. In housing, the fee would encourage developers and owners to minimize the parking they provide, and perhaps would even become a factor in how banks approve loans.

So how much money in fees are we talking? The Puget Sound Regional Council is the best source of parking data for Seattle, but their inventories don't cover the whole city, and don't count residential parking. In 2006 they found about 26,000 commercial parking stalls in the Seattle central business district.

Given that there are nearly 300,000 housing units in Seattle, for a back of the napkin guesstimate I'll assume that the entire city of Seattle holds a total of 400,000 parking stalls on private property. So if the impact fee was $100 per stall, it would bring in $40 million per year. Not a bad start, though I would argue that the rate should be higher. Ideally that revenue would be invested in infrastructure that supports alternatives to driving, or it could also be part of a "tax shift" scheme to reduce the tax burden on beneficial pursuits such as small businesses.

But okay, back to reality. No doubt the idea of an impact fee on privately owned parking stalls would cause a total freakout in the general populace.

And there are at least two obvious and formidable process obstacles. First, if we were going to penalize the ownership of parking stalls, we would have to do away with laws that require them. That's something we should do anyway, but alas, it is not yet politically feasible. Second, to be truly fair and effective, the impact fee would have to be assessed uniformly across the central Puget Sound region---a feat of regional governance unimaginable today.

On the other hand, a parking stall impact fee may not be as radical as it sounds. Cities in Oregon, Texas, Colorado, and most recently, Kansas, currently assess transportation utility fees, AKA the "driveway tax," based on estimated road use. These fees are designed to make the people who benefit from roads pay their fair share, and the revenue collected is spent on road maintenance, which, compared to the idea of correcting for externalities, is an easier sell to the public.

So yes, it's true that I'd have to be dreaming to believe that a universal parking stall impact fee could actually happen within today's cultural context. But why is that?

Is there anyone out there who really believes that we're going to be successful in stopping the collective train from going over the cliff without significantly changing the way we do things? Or that Seattle will achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 or anything close to it---ever---if we aren't willing to enact bold new public policy? The change we need is not going to happen all by itself.
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