Free Parking Is a Terrible Investment for Transit Agencies

Is pouring millions into fancy parking garages like this the best thing for transit in the Twin Cities? Image:
Instead of charging for spaces when its park-and-ride facility reached capacity, the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority will spend $6.6 million on a garage and give those spaces away for free too. Image: MVTA

Does it make sense for cash-strapped transit agencies to spend millions of dollars on park-and-ride facilities and then give those parking spaces away for free?

The Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, which operates in the Minneapolis suburbs, is going to spend $6.6 million to build a 330-car garage at its Apple Valley Transit Station. Matt Steele at Streets.mn ran the numbers, and what he found was pretty illuminating:

At $6.6 million for 330 spaces, we’re spending a clean $20,000 per space. That’s about average for structured parking. If we amortize that “investment” over 30 years, we’re spending $667 per year per space. At ~255 non-holiday weekdays a year (since that’s the only time these additional spaces will be “needed”) that’s $2.61 per space per day of use. That’s more than the difference between the express fare paid by Route 477 riders and the local fare paid by walk-up transit users elsewhere in the system ($0.75 * 2 trips = $1.50/day).

And, remember, that $6.6 million doesn’t benefit all riders at AVTS, it only benefits net new riders. At a generous assumption of 1.5 riders per vehicle, we still have less than 500 new riders a day at AVTS. And those are riders that may otherwise drive to other park & rides such as Kenrick Avenue in Lakeville, or another Red Line station in Apple Valley or Lakeville.

I’m quite familiar with AVTS and its parking “problems.” Growing up in the south metro, AVTS was my station of choice when I lived at home during summers in college and commuted to internships in Downtown Minneapolis. Apple Valley was historically upset that us Lakeville residents would drive to AVTS and take “their” spots, while Lakeville wasn’t in the Transit Taxing District. Fair complaint, but it would be better solved through proper pricing of car storage.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Greater Greater Washington reports that officials at the National Institutes of Health have changed their minds after claiming last year the agency wouldn’t be able to attract good scientists without more parking at its Bethesda campus — now they’ve decided not to build any additional parking. Another one from GGW explains how two Washington lawmakers are trying to secure more federal dollars for bike-share systems. And Greater City Providence shows pictures of the seven homes Brown University is planning to tear down and replace with a parking lot.

  • AMH

    Ridiculous that they won’t charge the $3 it would take to recover the capital expense (to say nothing of debt service or maintenance). Are they borrowing money to build the garage?

  • vgXhc

    Not to mention opportunity cost…

  • The problem is that transit agencies are typically separate from overall transportation planning and funding, among other things. Park and rides can be a great strategy to increase transit usage and reduce congestion, especially when combined with lowering parking requirements in a certain area and if parking is free. But the entire district that will be realizing the benefit should be paying for the lots, not just the transit agency.

  • Anandakos

    This $7 million facility will provide parking spaces for FIVE articulated buses per day. Five. That’s a lot of subsidy.

  • JZ71

    Compare the cost of creating bus routes to serve these riders. Anything you don’t use is an expensive “waste”, anything you use (a bus shelter, a new bus, WiFi) is a “smart investment”. Suburban taxpayers pay a big chunk of any transit agency’s budget, and this is likely the most cost-effective way to get suburbanites out of their cars and onto transit.

  • Joe Versaggi

    This is rather silly bean-counter mentality looking at the parking deck as a stand-alone cost center. Then they whine that the transit system “loses money”, while dissing any means of increasing their business. I don’t any parallel ROI analysis of suburban office parks offering “free ” parking , because without which, they would not have anyone showing up to work in such transit deserts.

  • Basically everything done by transit agencies is by subsidy. Keeping those 330 cars off city streets at peak hours can mean the difference between having gridlock or keeping things moving. If the alternatives also require any construction, it can also be a lot cheaper.

  • neroden

    It’s not silly. That money could have gone into other transit service improvements.

    Free parking when the land is cheap, empty, and flat is OK. When you have to spend millions to build garages, free parking is a *problem*.’

    Charge a dollar a day for parking and see whether the old garage fills up. If it does, charge two dollars a day for parking and see whether it fills up. If it does, charge three dollars a day for parking.

    Once you’re charging three dollars a day for parking you can afford to build new parking garages out of the *parking income* (based on the costs presented for this particular project) and you can stop raising rates and start building parking.

    Without stealing money from the bus budget.

  • neroden

    That is indeed what’s ridiculous. If this is an attractive enough place to park and ride, people will pay the $3 a day.

  • Joe Versaggi

    My point was not so much charging $0 or $5, but consider the incremental ridership brought about by parking deck as part of its ROI. “Other” transit improvements (whatever that is) may not be of much use if you cannot park at the station to use it because daily spots are full at 6am.

  • Anandakos

    Of course; everything you said is true. All I’m saying is that there are far better ways to get 330 cars off the road than building a parking structure which will be empty nearly one third the days of every year in the future. “Blue Streak” style expresses which pass through a neighborhood before going express work well and only cost 1/3 or less more than standard P’n’R expresses to operate.

    But if there truly are no practical ways to run such collector/expresses in the neighborhood of this facility at least charge half the cost of the subsidy for the high-quality priority bus ride to park there.

  • kclo3

    Increasing capacities of park-and-rides, just like any other parking-abundant environment, only encourages the increase of VMT in larger and larger radii, at which point you’ve merely dispersed and exacerbated the peak-hour problem to the suburbs. Just look at the land use immediately surrounding the station; how can anyone argue that $6.6 million + maintenance costs for structured parking offers a competent ROI? It’s like a dedicated TOD-ready transit facility wasn’t even built here in the first place.

  • Joe Versaggi

    You are not looking at the complete picture. There already is a peak hour traffic problem in the suburbs. Looks at places like Ronkonkoma, Metropark, and Princeton Junction. If they cannot park at the station, they will drive to work and not use transit at all. Then the roads get more congested, they will get made wider, and the sprawl continues. Your $6.6 Million then becomes petty cash.

  • Andrew

    If the only way to use the station is to drive to it in your personal car, then we have a big problem. And not only a land use problem – why are we limiting the use of a transit station to people who own cars?

  • Andrew

    How much does it cost to drive all the way to work, including parking (presumably in Manhattan, given your examples)? Must parking at the station be free in order to be an attractive alternative? And how about giving people a way to reach the station that doesn’t require driving at all, so that they don’t add to parking requirements and perhaps they can do without a car?

  • Joe Versaggi

    We are not limiting the use of train station to people who just own cars, but if you think everyone must live within walking distance of rail station, I am afraid you do not have much grasp of reality. The rest of the country is not like Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn.

  • Joe Versaggi

    I don’t have a problem with moderate parking fees or feeder buses.

  • neroden

    If they cannot park at the station, they will move to downtown. Already happening.

    After all, driving to work downtown takes *even longer*. In LA and SF people are sick of two-hour commutes. Everyone who can afford it is moving closer to downtown.

    (In SF, very few can afford to move downtown because zoning rules are preventing any new housing from being built, but that’s another problem — I strongly advocate eliminating most of the zoning rules, particularly the height limits, lot coverage limits, setbacks, FAR restrictions, and “single family” restrictions.)

  • neroden

    Well, that’s exactly what the argument is about here.

    MVTA is building FREE parking. If they built parking and charged $3/day for it, the parking would pay for itself. Why are they subsidizing cars and sprawl?

    For contrast, there’s an enormous parking garage on the outskirts of the NJT Rail System (leading to NYC). Ramsey Route 17. Over 1000 parking spaces.

    They charge $4 a day. I have no problem with this parking garage and if it fills up, sure, they should build more parking — $4/day will pay for that construction.

    I’m not opposed to parking; I’m opposed to *heavily subsidized* parking. I’m arguing that parking should be supplied on a commercial basis, rather than subsidized.

  • wklis

    The Toronto Transit Commission charges for parking at its Park-n-Ride lots, Monday to Friday. They get filled up pretty fast in the morning.

  • Phantom Commuter

    You are dreaming. Only a tiny percentage could afford, or would want to live “Downtown.”

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