These days, with hot and heavy public meeting and disclosure requirements, when elected officials have retreats they have something of the quality of watching French royalty eat dinner in the Salon of the Grand Couvert at Versailles: an attempt to have private things happen in full public view. The Sound Transit Board’s retreat this week at Bell Harbor Conference Center was no different. Councilmembers, mayors, and other members of the board talked back and forth, but comments about parking and Transit Oriented Development were probably less candid when aimed at constituents than if they were spoken in private. But I got some good insights on where the board might go on parking and Transit Oriented Development.
First the parking discussion. Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin kicked off the discussion with a well rehearsed set of principles he felt should be used when considering the issue of parking around transit stations. Conlin said that the most important issues are “maximizing ridership, ensure the agency is solvent, and that we have happy customers.”
The “happy customers” point was also raised by King County Councilmember Larry Phillips who asked how people driving to transit who can’t find a place to park might adversely affect future funding measures, a point echoed by others who worried that not building parking might discourage ridership.
However, King County Executive Dow Constantine offered the big picture perspective. We shouldn’t be subsidizing the past, but planning for the future when it comes to parking and Transit Oriented Development, he suggested. The board should balance between today’s needs to support driving to transit with planning for a time when people live near or even on top of transit stations.
Washington State Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond got the prize for the most bizarre comment, suggesting that perhaps no limits should be put on non-transit users having access to parking. After all, taxpayers should be able to park in what they paid for.
An incredulous Julia Patterson said she couldn’t think of “a worse advertisement for skeptics of Sound Transit than filling up the parking lot with people not using the system. “ No agreement was reached on this point during the morning session.King County Councilmember Joe McDermott made a great point saying, “I pay taxes in Seattle for police cars, but that doesn’t mean I can demand that a policeman give me a ride home after the meeting.” If Hammond is worried about tax dollars, is there a bigger waste of taxpayer dollars than spending money on parking for people not using the system?
The board then turned toward the subject of Transit Oriented Development. The question before the board was posed as “what is Sound Transit’s basic vision for TOD and what role will Sound Transit play in facilitating it?” Historically, Sound Transit has been passive, leaving TOD to others, not engaging in actual development or even really pushing specific proposals for TOD near station areas. Sound Transit has seen itself as a transit agency, not a development agency. Worries about mission and costs associated with TOD have mostly kept the agency out of the TOD game.
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland said she sees Transit Oriented Development as a “magnet to attract private investment to the region,” and Julia Patterson followed up suggesting that TOD was about “improving the quality of life” in the region, making it more walkable. She also explicitly called out the fact that TOD helps to limit sprawl, still a point of contention with some opponents of growth.
Seattle City Councilmember Conlin offered a bland assessment of the agency’s role, suggesting that development around light rail should implement the Vision 2040 plan for the region and local comprehensive plans, which would put TOD in service of often aspirational and vague local plans and sometimes controversial highway focused plans like 2040. Conlin seemed averse to having Sound Transit’s taking a leading role in TOD.
The Mayor of Redmond John Marchione said something I have said numerous times, that TOD is about “integration with neighborhoods, not today but in 2040.” The idea is that TOD and light rail station development is about the future, not just meeting the needs of today. Density in Redmond is actually quite impressive compared to Seattle’s tentative approach.
Larry Phillips wondered out loud “whether we really are we moving toward being TOD agency?” He suggested it is an open question, with the agency still being somewhat averse to becoming a developer. But Phillips said, “We have to think beyond the station.” Phillips suggested that the agency should be more bold, trying to drive the development outcomes not just a quarter mile around stations, but further.
Other board members chimed in with caution, emphasizing the transit elements of the agency’s work and costs, saying that it hasn’t even finished building the lines it needs to build. There wasn’t any conclusive answers to the question about whether the agency would shift it’s footing, but perhaps Larry Phillips might be a leader of efforts to turn the agency’s attention toward making good TOD happen. Pushing better TOD “doesn’t threaten our transit mission,” he said.
The stars of the morning: King County Executive Dow Constantine, Councilmembers Phillips, McDermott, and Patterson, and Redmond Mayor Marchione. Each voiced strongly the big picture, challenged some of the more conservative and strange (free parking for everyone) points other board members made.
If today’s morning segment is any indication, the King County delegation to the board is the best hope for leading the agency into more sustainable policies on parking, and a more aggressive economic focus for TOD.