1. Last March, when Sound Transit released a draft of its ST3 plan (the board is approving the the finalized plan to send to voters this afternoon), I asked how the agency determined the need and number of parking spots around stations. Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick told me “there is no formula here.”
There were more than 8,000 new parking stalls in the plan at that time, and I was looking for any scientific approach that had been used to get to that number. The updated plan released on June 2 now includes even more new parking, such as a new park and ride in North Sammamish.
A little startled by Patrick's response, I filed a public records request asking the agency for internal discussions about ST's parking estimates for ST3. The documents reveal not only the extent to which ST is improvising on parking (one staffer sent around a document from Minnesota’s transit agency declaring “I found this report on the internet,” when another staffer asked how they’re estimating parking), but internal emails also show how leery staff is of admitting as much to the public.
For example, in early April when one staff planner, in response to a query from a local Sierra Club member about parking metrics, took a stab at outlining the guidelines the agency used to determine parking, the agency’s director of planning and development, David Beal, was clearly alarmed.
“I’m very uncomfortable with the last two sentences of this. For whom is this intended?” Beal asks as the response was circulated for review among staffers.
The offending two sentences: “Parking is not sized as a function of anticipated ridership or anticipated demand for parking. Sound Transit assumes that demand for parking will almost always outpace supply.”
Several weeks later, after Beal’s admonition (he demanded more “nuance” because “I think the last 2 sentences give it a certain flavor”), the response was reframed to make it sound less like the agency was doing guess work, and more like they were simply being flexible, within the framework that they weren’t building enough parking to begin with.
“Demand for parking will almost always expand to meet supply,” the final wording said. “As such, Sound Transit does not size parking with the assumption of meeting maximum possible demand for it. Rather Sound Transit focuses on providing reasonable access for riders from across the region in a way that increases mobility, supports alternative access modes, and honors the urban fabric, travel patterns, and local visions of individual communities.”
Ultimately, staff outlined a methodology that includes subjective and politicized considerations that—rather than transforming the status quo for a changeover to mass transit—adheres to the status quo by considering things such as city ordinances and practices and input from elected officials.
Here's how they figure out how much parking to allocate:
Previous planning studies: Sometimes previous ST planning studies of a given transit corridor or location will inform parking sizing.
Current and future land-use: Lower density land uses with disconnected street and sidewalk grids sometimes require more parking, whereas denser land uses with high levels of connectivity may require less parking. Additionally, the availability of suitable parcels and/or necessary zoning to accommodate transit parking can influence the assumed presence and sizing of parking.
City ordinances or practices: Some cities have ordinances, practices or other policies governing the construction of parking at transit facilities.
Input from city staff and elected officials: City staff and elected officials articulate the long-range vision for their communities, and help define the role that parking will play in supporting transit there use in the future.
Input from the public: Sound Transit offers the public formal opportunities to weigh in on a draft system plan. Comments resulting from these opportunities are synthesized and reported to the Sound Transit Board. In addition, the public is encouraged to communicate their comments directly to local elected officials and the Sound Transit Board.
Available resources: Parking is sized in part based on affordability, and available funding in a given subarea or corridor.
Input from Sound Transit Board Members: Sound Transit Board Members have the ability to actively shape draft system plans, and are the decision makers who adopt final system plans.
2. Earlier this week, I reported the news that the U.W. was thinking about scrapping its U-Pass program for faculty and staff.
65 percent of the U.W.’s 30,000 employees (70 percent of staff and 60 percent of faculty) use the program—a subsidized transit pass that helps the U.W. achieve an impressive 40/20 mode split overall between buses and cars. (The other 40 percent is divvied up between pedestrians and bikers.) About 97 percent of students use the program too, but since they pay outright for the pass, the student component is not in jeopardy.
Yesterday, U.W. spokeswoman (and former Seattle city council member) Sally Clark confirmed that the future popular U-Pass program for employees is uncertain.
She told Fizz: “The U-PASS has been a model program for a long time and it continues to be a source of pride. However, on the faculty/staff side of the program, the U-PASS financial structure and variables don’t work anymore.”
Clark cited problems such as the fact that the pass isn't universal, increased transit costs, and its reliance on parking revenue. Indeed, there is an inherent irony to the program: Since it’s funded by parking revenue, the more people who opt in, the few dollars there are to fund it.
Citing some positive developments for transit access around the U.W.—the new Husky Stadium light rail stop, the future light rail station at 45th (2021), denser housing, and Burke-Gilman upgrades—Clark said: “The UW will be undertaking a planning process this summer and fall to look at new models or options to make the U-PASS financially sustainable. We want to throw all of that into the work of figuring out the best future for the U-PASS program. All of this is in conversation and no decisions have been made.”
A city audit found that the U.W. had not been paying a portion of the city’s commercial parking tax between January 2011 and June 2015, and they recently settled up, paying the city $3.4 million with another $600,000 to come.
The U.W. has been paying the full tax this year; they’ve already paid $1.4 million and estimate they’ll pay between $3.6 million and $3.9 million per year going forward, Clark says.
A weird footnote: In 2011, then state senator Ed Murray pushed legislation—at the behest of his employer, the U.W.—to exempt the U.W. from the city’s commercial parking tax. The U.W. reasoned that since the city used CPT money for transit programs, and the U.W.’s parking fees were already going to subsidize the U-Pass, the tax was unnecessary. U.W. withdrew the legislation only after the city agreed to pay the U.W. $1.5 million over three years to help cushion the blow of paying the tax. At the time city council member Clark testified against the parking tax exemption in the state senate. Despite paying off the U.W., it turns out, the U.W. didn't pay a portion of the tax for several years, withholding between $1.6 million and $1.9 million per year.