Board Retreat

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.

60 Replies to “Sound Transit Board Retreat: Who Will Lead on Parking and TOD?”

  1. As fuel prices rise having local P&R lots in every community with frequent all day service to major destinations either directly or through connections will be importaint. We are not going to ever be rid of our dependancy on the automobile but i think there will be a shift to using public transportation for longer inter-regional trips.

    1. I have revised your statement to make more sense:

      “As fuel prices rise having TRANSIT CENTERS WITH LOCAL BUS SERVICE in every community with frequent all day service to major destinations either directly or through connections will be important. We CAN HELP REDUCE our dependency on the automobile FOR ALL KINDS OF TRIPS.”

      When gas becomes more and more unfordable, citizens will benefit the most by eliminating one or more cars from their family. It doesn’t make economic sense to own a car if it just sits at a P&R all day. My wife and I save $3000 a year by only owning one car. Most of the savings come from insurance and maintenance. We drive about as much as we did when we owned two cars.

  2. Was there free parking at Pier 66 for these decision-makers? How many arrived by anything other than a private automobile? How many have ever been dependent on transit, walking and bicycle alone? And these are the enlightened few we trust to decide the future of mass transit in Puget Sound?

  3. What was Paula Hammond thinking? I’d love to be able to cancel my $200 a month parking spot in my apartment garage, and just park my car for free at Northgate. What a tool.

    1. Can someone get Pavement Paula a copy of Donald Shoup’s book? I’ll volunteer to read it to her.

    2. So, is it now okay for everyone who pays gas tax or federal income tax to park their car on I-5?

  4. As with any other scarce commodity, if you allot it by any means other than slapping a price on it…well, you’ll have to find some way to allot it. You can make it like untolled road capacity and open the gate to all comers, first come first served. In that light, Ms. Hammond’s comment makes perfect sense. Why shouldn’t a publicly provided good be available to everyone?

    Or you could come up with a system of permits and time limits to ensure that people use it for whatever noble purpose you intend them to use if for. Or it could result in aftermarkets or hoarding, but at least the capacity would be somehow allocated.

    Or you could employ people to watch people get out of their cars and make sure they get on a bus or a train. This isn’t too different, really, from the way owners of so-called free parking lots make sure that you shop in their store while you’re parked there.

    I usually prefer to price the parking at a rate to ensure there’s an empty space available to anyone who needs or wants it. I’m not particularly concerned about what they do while they’re parked.

    1. Eric H.:


      Google “Tragedy of the Commons” sometime.

      The problem with Hammond is that she is a road engineer. The road engineers of her generation were taught that creating more capacity for cars was always their purpose, and that the resources for doing so would always be available. In addition, her era, the one which put a man on the moon, had no concept of resource management, or that eventually, through over-issued credit car ownership and maintenance would be “available” to all, including women who would need to work to pay for this “unlimited society”.

      So we have a deadly combination of expanding to meet demand and demand that knew no end.

      Stop! Bubble time!

  5. “After all, taxpayers should be able to park in what they paid for.”

    Indeed, why should we riders have to pay a fare to ride ST?

    1. Indeed, why should we riders have to pay a fare to ride ST?

      Two reasons.

      1. The feds will yank the subsidies if you don’t

      2. The voters will see transit riders as the economic parasites that they are, and vote against future funding.

      So you’d better play along.

  6. Sound Transit’s mission statement: “Sound Transit plans, builds, and operates regional transit systems and services to
    improve mobility for Central Puget Sound.”

    Aside from the fact they don’t adhere to their mission statement in terms of operating most of their transit systems, (they contract with what I would call real transit agencies to operate them), Sound Transit’s only purpose is to improve mobility by building transit systems. ST needs to be kept on a very tight leash so as to avoid mission creep.

    1. Sam, are you suggesting ST move away from contracting out, and going to direct hire for all their ongoing services?

      I’m amazed at your string of progressive positions, of late.

      1. I wasn’t suggesting anything, I just wanted find out what ST’s mission statement was to see if it could shed some light on how involved they should be with TOD, and while reading it, I realized they don’t adhere to their mission statement in terms of operating.

      2. I think Brent has a good point. Sound Transit would probably save a lot of money if they didn’t have to contract out, as required by state law, a lot of their operations. ;)

      3. Is ST required to contract out? I remember reading a few years ago a Municipal League report on Metro that warned of it’s high operating costs being transferred to Sound Transit through operating contracts. That sure seems to be the case with Link, where it’s operating costs are 2-3 times that of peer systems. I wonder how much of that cost could be reduced if ST operated Link directly.

      4. The one example of where they do operate the transit is Tacoma Link. If that’s any indication the costs would be much higher if ST ran the show. Now, if they contract out directly to a private firm then yes. We see that reflected in the lower charge CT passes along to ST.

  7. I’m not sure why Roger characterized Sec. Hammand’s quote as bizzare. It’s a point of view; from the POV of the DOT, park & rides are there to reduce the number of vehicles on the highway. Many people use the P&R for carpooling, whether for commutes, for events or for hiking and skiing trips. Isn’t that a valid use of the parking spaces (especially since some of those uses are at low demand times)?

    Also, structured parking at some P&Rs are already shared use. Examples: the SPG garage at Northgate, Kent Station and Redmond TC.

    1. Except this is a P&R attached to a rail transit line. Big difference. Hey can I get free parking at Sea-Tac next time? I paid for that garage!

      1. But in 2016 you’ll be able to park in a 3000 stall garage south of Sea-Tac probably for free…

      2. Charles, if you’re referring to the S 200th. St. station, they’re looking at 1100 spaces, with a high likelihood that much of that will be in a surface lot which will be repurposed when the line is extended.

      3. I stand corrected. I thought I had read the numbers between a garage and lot as totaling 3000. In any case, I think this facility will prove quite popular for several years until light rail eventually is built farther south. Some time back, someone posted a link to “temporary” garage infrastructure. Seems like a perfect fit for this use case.

      4. I couldn’t remember the number of spaces either, but 3000 sounded wrong, so I looked up an old post about S. 200th.

        The comment abount about the temporary garages was by Oran in one of the Northgate parking posts. Maybe that would also be a useful idea for parking expansion at TIB station until S. 200th is built. They could then just move the temp. garage.

    2. @aw, it’s not a valid use of the lot, if like most of the Seattle Transit Blog, you are engaged in a war on automobiles and drivers.

  8. Council Member Patterson had an intriguing idea: Charge for parking, and then let those who proceed to ride transit get a rebate in the form of value credited on an ORCA transfer.

    $3.50 may not be enough to dissuade non-transit users from parking all day, but it would help increase the number of available spots, which I think is the real goal. Some will choose to carpool to the P&R over multiple people using up multiple spots.

    I don’t know if this will pencil out, but it sounds a lot better than Ms. Hammond’s proposal to build as much free parking as people will use up, for whatever purpose.

    Speaking of which, will it be ST’s goal to supply as much bike parking (which is paid parking, if you use the lockers) as people use up?

      1. Not too far off. About $17 would cover the cost of a day pass and the mortgage on the parking structure. And weekends would still be free. That’s for structured parking. Surface lots are considerably cheaper albeit with a much more limited capacity. It’s more difficult to factor in land cost given it’s future potential for development.

      2. Bernie, if the mortgage on the parking structure would really be covered by an amount people were willing to pay, a private developer would have built a parking garage next to a light rail station already. :)

      3. Not if they have to compete with free parking provided by Metro, ST and WSDOT. In DT private developers did build garages. In RV the ability to charge for parking near Link stations was severly curtailed by the City. I don’t know if a private developer would be willing to take on a parking garage at say South Bellevue. I doubt it, especially since they’re competeing against free parking at Eastgate.

    1. Brilliant idea. They tap to register their car, and it includes a $N transfer.

  9. I’m looking forward to Ms. Hammond showing up at a Port of Seattle retreat, and explaining why it should be free to park at the airport…

    1. I’d prefer free check-ups and longer term medical care at the University of Washington hospitals.

      Oh, and free tuition too.

  10. I’m less concerned about building parking lots than I am about the COST of building those parking lots.

    That’s not meant to be another bizarre comment. I mean, I am okay with Sound Transit building parking lots right now because we then have valuable land that can be sold off in the future to developers for TOD and more money to pay for transit operations. Just look south to Oakland where BART is now benefiting from the (un)fortunate decision years ago to build acres of parking lots around their suburban stations, and some great TOD is happening.

    I still think we should generally oppose parking lots right now, though, because ST needs to direct as much funding as possible to building the best transit lines under the current budget crisis. Make sense?

    1. Of the nine proposed Link stations in the east subarea 5 serve P&R lots. One of them will be brand new and South Bellevue will be a temple to cars. Mercer Island is asking for more structured parking after making ST pay extra for reduced parking because they wanted it underground. Think of it this way; giving someone a space in a parking garage costs as much over 30 years as handing out two free monthly passes. Should people that bike, walk, bus be getting that incentive or should we keep forking it over to drivers?

  11. Perhaps Sec. Hammond is unaware of this, but publicly owned parking lots generate NO local property tax revenue, no gas tax revenue (the cars are not turned on while they are parked), no sales tax revenue… and they DO create all kinds of public costs for maintenance and lighting and security. They also depress neighboring property values. Why shouldn’t the people who park there pay for those costs. If the land were used for actual uses that involve economic activity, living space, etc. then revenue would flow to the local jurisdictions and the state budget. Must we open the floodgates because WDOT foisted this expense on the general taxpaying public? Why? Why didn’t we bond these parking projects and pay them back with user fees? Wouldn’t that be more equitable? I talk to transit park and riders often and all of them indicate a willingness to pay an appropriate fee if that means they can drive in and find a space without circling for 20 minutes. Some people will always live in areas that are difficult to serve with fixed route transit, but they may be able to vanpool or use electric vehicles to get to transit on their own. I have no problem with providing the parking the market demands today, in a way that doesn’t preclude future changes in land use.
    I’ve heard discussion of using ORCA to pay for parking and then giving transfer credit for subsequent transit trips. Does anyone know if that’s workable or what the undesirable impact might be?

  12. At the morning session I didn’t hear very much discussion of the relationship between public investment in station parking and transit ridership.

    I also didn’t hear much discussion about the relationship between public investment in motivating more people to live and work near stations (=TOD) and transit ridership.

    I gathered, however, from snippets, that it is universally assumed by the Board that more parking at stations, or more TOD at stations, would increase transit ridership.

    As you all know, my interest is in the effectiveness of public investments to achieve goals. A billion dollars for buses would achieve more ridership than a billion dollars for trains. But I digress…

    For me, here’s the interesting question relevant to the Board discussion: If Sound Transit were to have an incremental 50 million dollars (pick a number) to invest in either (1) additional parking at Tukwila Station or S 200th Station, or (2) TOD at any light rail stations of its choosing from Husky Stadium to S 200th, which investment would provide the largest increase in light rail ridership?

    Follow-up question, which investment would most meet the intent of regional public policy?

    Additional follow-up question, which investment would be best for the sustainability of the region and the planet?

    1. “which investment would be best for the sustainability of the region and the planet?”

      Long, long term, of your options, more track & stations along it. Why? because even though it encourages sprawl to build out a system which makes far away places easier to reach, we are likely to build that sprawl anyway.

      What would make the best investment? Make it easier to bicycle around. It’s the least cost, most effective transportation option. Of that, do like Portland is doing, and build out bicycle blvds so that people who live within 5 miles of their destination can get there safely. Second, a bike sharing system, for making that last mile fast enough so that people will ride the bus, take the train whatever vs driving. Plenty of people avoid the bus because it doesn’t go close enough, frequently enough to where they need to go. Add an inexpensive bicycle rental and you can now ride to a more centralized core BUS or train system that does operate with enough frequency.

      1. I didn’t hear the ST Board saying very much at the Retreat about the role of bicycles in transit access.

        On your point about bike rentals, I’ve observed and appreciated “industrialized” bike sharing in action over the past few years in Mexico City, Seville in Spain, and Melbourne, Australia. By that I mean private companies have made significant investments in bikes, racks, and online information systems that let you make sure a bike will be there when you need it. These companies also have to move bikes by truck from destinations back to origins when there are strong one-way flows in a part of the day that overwhelm the bike racks at popular locations. I documented what I saw in Spain at .

    2. John, the market has a great answer for that. With the option to build parking garages or to build TOD, the market chooses to build TOD. :)

      1. What’s the market choosing to build at the Beacon Hill station? At Northgate? At Rainier Beach? At Tukwila/Int’l Blvd? At Capitol Hill?

        All different, and not purely market-driven. Complicated interactions of public and private interests. Of course it’s different at different stations. But Sound Transit needs to think about applying its limited resources across all of the stations for best effect.

        My questions above were theoretical to sort out what should be done to drive up transit ridership, which for Sound Transit’s Central Link light rail is pathetic given the level of investment. Does pushing up ridership matter? I say yes.

        I’m pretty sure that providing as much parking as possible at Tukwila or the new S 200th station with giant promotion of its availability would drive up Central Link ridership more than anything else Sound Transit could do. But let’s discuss if that’s the right thing to do.

        I posted Sound Transit’s new map from the Board Retreat of where the parking is coming from at Tukwila at . What does that map say to you?

      2. I’m pretty sure that providing as much parking as possible … would drive up Central Link ridership more than anything else

        The old, “loose a little lot on each one but make it up in volume approach.”

      3. Bernie —

        Your comment brings up the irony raised by Transportation Secretary Hammond who is being scorned by Roger Valdez and others for suggesting folks should be allowed to use ST parking lots for meet ups to form van pools and car pools, both of which are mobility modes vastly more cost-effective on average than the trains that ST’s lots are built to serve.

        However, it is probably true that the marginal cost-effectiveness (MCE) of a few more rail rider boarding to put their butts into otherwise empty seats on a train exceeds the MCE of letting their parking slots accommodate van poolers with some train customers unable to find parking. This is especially true as long as the van poolers can figure out an alternative lot for their meet up to park and ride.

        Think of Central Link for the moment as an expensive, already-built and paid-for conveyer belt machine for carrying people into downtown Seattle with lots of room still available on the belt for more folks without adding operating cost. The space available is shown in the contrast between what Link carried on its free opening day weekend in July 2009 compared to the light loads it is seeing now two and 1/2 years later. The rail cars are meant to carry as many standees as sit downs.

        Contrary to SecDOT, I now think I come out in favor of considering Sound Transit’s parking lots as integral parts of its rail network. A rail passenger ticket should be required to park in one of their lots, at least for Sounder.

        Tukwila Int’l Station is an interesting complication because that lot is the northern terminus of the Metro RapidRide line southward as well as the southern parkable station for going north on Link. I used it for bus trips to Federal Way.

        As a related point, I think I heard Councilwoman Patterson make comments to the Retreat suggesting there was something not right about parking at Tukwila Station and riding down to the airport for an errand or full day’s work at that Port facility, or for a day trip to California. Not sure.

      4. To get the cost per rider down you’re incentive has to be less than the current cost per boarding. With a parking garage the subsidy per trip is pretty close to the current cost per rider. As ridership goes up you need increasingly less expensive incentives to break even. But if you never recoup any of the cost of building a parking garage the cost of that debt never goes down building a high cost per boarding in forever. The only way this twisted logic of increased ridership returning more “bang for your buck” makes sense is if you roll the cost of building the parking garage into the capital cost of building the system and pretend that it’s free money. You’re really just handing out $10 bills to everyone that parks in the garage so that ridership on the train looks better.

      5. John Niles, thanks for the map. It tells me that Link’s southern extension and its future P&Rs are in just the right place (the area thickest with P&R patrons). It also tells me that TIB’s wide-area catchment are in the areas most underserved by transit (meaning a high resident/bus route ratio), just as I predicted. So the P&R is doing its job. It also tells me Link is attractive to at least a few in Renton and Kent, and that bodes well for RapidRide F and later a Burien-Renton line.

      6. Lots of vehicles from Renton, S Rainier Vly, even Mercer Is.
        Me thinks they’re not there to catch a train NB. Maybe all stolen vehicles or something else.

      7. The market isn’t operating freely around rail stations as it is. The cities each have their own zoning restrictions and other regulations.

        Lifting regulations like height limits would be far cheaper than subsidizing zoning-area development. Having zoning that *allows* for residential and mixed-use development also helps. For politicians unfamiliar with mixed-use, here’s a primer: Apartment dwellers don’t like to live on the first floor (with rare exceptions), and businesses looking for walk-in customers like to be on the first floor. Got the Pareto optimality now?

        I’m not saying all regulation is bad. I’m just saying that some regulations are counterproductive. Low height limits and housing-prohibitive zoning around major transit investments is one of those counterproductive regulations.

      8. What matters is where significant numbers of cars come from, not one single car. The biggest concentrations are south around 99, so they’ll be taken care of by the Link extensions and future P&Rs: they’ll still ride Link (because they are already) but they won’t drive as far (which is the purpose of the P&Rs). As to whether they should be on RR A: one, cajoling them hasn’t worked yet so why would it later; two, you can’t assume they live within walking distance of an A station.

        The scattered dots are mostly around Burien, Des Moines, Renton, and Kent, where the buses are infrequent, go to only a few places, and aren’t near many people’s houses. Again, that’s the purpose of P&Rs, to save the expense of additional bus routes.

        I have no idea why the person from Mercer Island is there, but I’m sure he didn’t drive through Southcenter traffic to take a train to downtown Seattle, when the bus service from Mercer Island P&R is excellent. But we don’t have to get excited about one person. You can’t eliminate people like that without address restrictions at the entrance.

        There is the possibility that as the southern P&Rs open, TIB will become emptier and nobody will take their places. If so, it would be all the sooner that we could redevelop part of the P&R.

      9. John, full vanpools and carpools are a lot less cost-effective than full trains on a full lifecycle analysis. Ever done one?

        They only seem better if you’ve got underloaded trains.

      10. John, full vanpools and carpools are a lot less cost-effective than full trains on a full lifecycle analysis. Ever done one?

        Have you ever once provided any backup for an assertion of fact? Instead of doing the urbanist ideologue thing and just making it up because it sounds good at the time, why don’t you back up your spewings with some actual evidence?

  13. There are two different lifestyles: density and suburbia. There are two different ways of transporting people within a metro area: transit and cars. Density is inextricably linked with transit and vice versa, and suburbia is inextricably linked with cars and vice versa. If you choose one, you necessarily get the other.

    Framed this way, TOD should quite obviously be part of ST’s mission, especially in Seattle.

    1. Transit and cars are not the only major transportation models.

      Maybe we should look closer at the Netherlands for how to do Bike Oriented Development.

      1. … and note that bikes can integrate very well with transit (using bikes as the “last mile(s)” mode).

        Also of course, suburbia isn’t really synonymous with a car-oriented lifestyle. The “rail suburb” model is well-established, and it’s easy and common to live without a car in such a place.

      2. Rail suburbs are awesome to live in and still carry huge price premiums most places.

      3. Rail suburbs are awesome to live in and still carry huge price premiums most places.

        Yet another unsubstantiated assertion. Come on, Nathaniel, one of these days you really ought to graduate from making it up to proving it.

  14. Both the STB and the ST Board should consider the opportunity cost of structured single purpose garages. If they cost about $40K per stall, consider how many riders could be attracted if those scarce funds were spent on improve transit service frequency. For example, in East King County, is it better to provide garages at Link stations or improved service on routes 522 and 566? Or in Snohomish County, is it better to provide garages at Link stations or improved service frequency on routs 510, 532, and 535? Is the objective of ST to maximize Link ridership or overall transit mobility? What would Jarrett Walker say? Does the answer change with parking fees? Or, would that have a larger price effect on the demand for stalls?

    1. Eddiew: Good questions! In the system sense, the dedicated public parking space at the train station or transit center for the regular commuter is clearly part of the cost of that person’s transit commute.

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