Sound Transit is pursuing improvements to station facilities at Puyallup and Sumner to accommodate growing Sounder ridership. These include the addition of several hundred parking stalls at each location.
At Sumner, the improvements include a 400+ stall parking garage to complement existing surface parking. At Puyallup, the agency plans a garage with up to 400 stalls, and another 300 surface parking spots to be built or leased at two other locations. The area around both stations will also see pedestrian and bicycle improvements. These include pedestrian bridges over the station railroad tracks. The improvements are to be completed by 2020.
The $94 million price tag was reported on these pages a few weeks ago, and wasn’t universally applauded. Why is a transit agency spending so much on parking? Shouldn’t we be investing in transit service over car storage? Why can’t we charge for parking on city streets to manage spillovers? Aren’t there alternate investments to improve transit ridership without enabling sprawl?
There’s no question that parking has become a challenge at both stations. Puyallup Station sees 1,200 Sounder riders per weekday. Sumner sees over a thousand. Two-thirds of riders drive to the station, with 20% arriving by bus. Lot parking is typically full by 6AM, causing spillover onto neighborhood streets that persists all day. Ten roundtrip trains a day leave each station. Three more are planned by 2017, and ridership is estimated to grow 70% by 2035.
Stacked against alternative transit investments in Seattle’s urban neighborhoods, such large expenditures would be impossible to justify. Even if it were cost-effective, we would never endorse placing park-and-ride garages in successful urban areas because they are so hostile to the dense walkable neighborhoods we prefer to see around transit.
In Puyallup and Sumner, it’s unlikely that there are better options. Sounder is an effective means of getting commuters to Seattle, but only if there are efficient collection points. Local land use doesn’t support getting transit close to most commuters’ homes, so the flexibility of the private car wins out as a mechanism for getting riders to the train. Land use is inherently very durable, particularly in places far from the urban core, so this won’t change quickly. Eventually, Puyallup could densify, but not likely to the point that a majority of riders are living downtown. In the meantime, the commercial core is fairly fragile, heavily dependent on drivers demanding convenient parking. Sounder service without dedicated parking could hurt access to downtown businesses more than it fosters walkable development.
Sounder service, it turns out, isn’t readily separated from parking. When we (as a region) decided we wanted Sounder South, we signed up to provide parking to match the seats on trains. There is no last mile solution that doesn’t have most commuters parking at the station.
Why not charge for existing parking rather than build more? Pricing has an obvious role as a management tool, but it’s primarily a rationing mechanism. In a station environment with necessarily limited parking, it drives out some users. One of two scenarios is inescapable. Sounder riders may decide that the cost of parking plus the train ticket is too high, and resume driving to Seattle. Or Sounder riders decide that the total cost of riding is acceptable, and displace customers of the business district, perhaps killing local retail. Most Sounder riders won’t be induced to walk or bike to stations because it’s too far. And Puyallup is an odd place to live if your goal is to not have a car.
Even in the moderately dense communities of the Eastside, many Link stations are being built with large parking facilities. Eastside cities won’t have large parking facilities for Link riders in their downtowns, but there will be significant parking infrastructure at other stops. Redmond, for instance, will see a downtown Link station (given ST3 passage) serving their urban core, and a SE Redmond station with 1,400 parking spaces in a five-story structure. The parking at this site will be critical to serving commuters from low-density neighborhoods that cannot be efficiently served by local transit.