BART Board Will Soon Debate Raising Parking Fees

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Raising the price of parking is a contentious issue anywhere, but it's particularly divisive for the BART Board of Directors, who may be debating a proposal from their finance committee as soon as next Thursday's board meeting to raise parking fees to mitigate their soaring budget deficit.

"Free parking is not free for BART," said director Tom Radulovich.  "Not the opportunity cost of the land, not the cost of operating the parking facilities.  BART has been really dumb about how we use the land around our stations in the past and now we have to decide what BART stations are going to be when they grow up.

Radulovich bemoaned the fact that BART still sees itself in many areas as a park-and-ride commuter rail service, when much of the land around the stations could be utilized for transit-oriented development.  He suggested that directors representing more suburban districts have historically been reluctant to charge anything for parking for fear that their constituents will react adversely and vote them off the board.

Given the successes of transit villages like Fruitvale, BART directors who want to see change have positive examples to point to.  BART is currently designing, building, or planning to build 11 new transit villages, some in suburban areas, like Pleasanton and Walnut Creek (PDF).

"I think we have made some significant progress with a lot of transit villages and with a policy that is on the leading edge in the Bay Area in making better land use decisions," said BART spokesperson Linton Johnson.  "Parking is the third rail of public transit and these guys are taking bold steps.  We’re talking suburban directors who have taken bold and unpopular steps to make these choices."

With a budget deficit expected to top $120 million in the next four years, some of BART's directors have suggested that the agency raise parking fees at the 15 stations where there is already a daily charge and impose a new fee in the remaining 28 stations that currently provide copious free parking. 

As director Lynette Sweet explained, it would cost BART $2-3 million per station to set up the required parking equipment at stations that don't currently charge for parking.  Sweet argued that the money required for implementation might seem high, but that they would recoup the cost per station in some cases before the first year was out, particularly if they charge prices that are closer to market-rate.

According to BART's figures, the cost to operate and maintain parking is between $1-2 per space, per day, which means the agency subsidizes parking for its riders.  Additionally, with capital costs of $20,000 per space for surface lots and $30,000 per space for garages, the outlay is substantial.

"Why should we pay you to park in our lots?" asked Sweet.  "Anyone knows in San Francisco if you can find all-day parking for a buck, it will be full by 5 am.  Look at West Oakland, we charge 5 dollars a day there and it's full by 6 am.  The residents of Contra Costa county drive in and park there."

Radulovich pointed to West Oakland as a perfect example of how far from market rate BART's parking policy is. Even though it is the most expensive parking in their network, private lots around the West Oakland station charge $6 or $7 dollars a day and do brisk business.  "BART has huge amounts of parking in West Oakland.  In any other city, West Oakland would be real mixed use area."

Sweet said that West Oakland is transitioning to become a de facto transit village even without an official program from BART, as private developers have realized the untapped value of developing near the transit hub.  Sweet also highlighted MacArthur Station as a success story, with plans to remove half the existing parking supply to make way for a transit village, a move requested originally by the neighborhood and one she maintains is hugely popular.

Radulovich argued the agency should do more to use parking fees to increase transit service to and from stations, particularly during peak periods.  

"Why do we subsidize the least efficient mode of access, the most expensive, least sustainable, the one that creates the worst impacts on our neighbors, and the one proven to benefit our wealthiest riders?  Our own statistics show that it's the mode used most by our most affluent riders.  We're subsidizing the people who can most afford to get to our stations.  If it costs us $2 a day to subsidize parking spaces, why don't we subsidize buses at $1 a day so that we support the people who can least afford to ride BART."

Johnson defended BART's current formula for using 25 percent of current parking revenues to improve access to BART stations, pointing out that it's geared toward generating new bicycle lockers, shuttle service, removing trash, art projects, making the parking lots and areas look better, and for leveraging additional money.  He also noted that last year BART spent $11 million on paratransit, $2.5 million on express buses, and $2.5 million on Muni and AirBART.

"I’m not sure why BART should do more," said Johnson.  "Why aren't bus operators paying more to get people to BART?  I think we pour in as many resources as possible to feeder bus services.  It’s not just a BART problem.  I think it’s unfair to take the issue that BART should do more because there are a lot of other players who should do more.  Counties could play a bigger role, local businesses could do more." 

BART Board Director Tom Blalock will ultimately decide if the committee parking proposal will be included in the agenda for the March board meeting.  According to Sweet the issue arose late, so procedurally it might be pushed to April. 

She laughed when asked if she thought this topic would be a big debate.

"I think it’s going to be a very contentious meeting.  Parking meetings always are.  But I know how much it costs to park in San Francisco, so you don’t get any sympathy from me when you say you don’t want to charge your constituents.”