City won't let you park to ride
When light rail opened in Seattle last summer, it put a Safeway grocery store in a bit of a bind. On the plus side, the Othello train station brought new energy to the block — enough so that Safeway reversed plans to close its store, instead starting a $3 million remodel.
Seattle Times staff columnist
When light rail opened in Seattle last summer, it put a Safeway grocery store in a bit of a bind.
On the plus side, the Othello train station brought new energy to the block — enough so that Safeway reversed plans to close its store, instead starting a $3 million remodel.
But Safeway had to hire parking monitors to keep train commuters from leaving their cars all day in the store's free parking lot.
So someone came up with a resourceful solution: Why not sell $30 monthly parking passes to light-rail users? The store has extra space in its lot on weekdays. It could use the money to help pay those parking attendants. And it would be a low-cost community service for folks who want to get out of their cars but live too far to walk to the station.
Winner all the way around, right? Best of all, no taxpayer green required.
The parking passes quickly sold out.
Then the city of Seattle called.
"They told us to shut it down," says Rick Smith, a manager at Diamond Parking, which was running the service for Safeway. "We canceled the passes, and now nobody can use that lot to take light rail."
This is happening up and down the rail line, the perverse result of well-meaning Seattle zoning laws to prevent the train stations from being surrounded by acres of hideous parking lots.
Across the street from Safeway, a developer has started building 700 units of apartments and retail, another sign of light rail's promise.
But half that project is on hold until next year at the earliest, so the developer figured: Why not give rail commuters a place to park for a year or two, and make a little money to boot?
Nope, said the city.
"Long-Term (over 4 hours) Light Rail Commuter Parking is Prohibited at this lot," reads a sign. As a result, there were zero cars parked there when I went by last week.
I read in the Rainier Valley Post, a local news Web site, that the city also had banned all-day parking in a 73-stall private lot near the Mount Baker rail station. Diamond Parking runs that one, too.
"They sent a letter telling us to cease and desist, so we did," Smith said.
Now you can park there for four hours, tops — making the lot mostly useless to light-rail riders. Yet it's right next to the station.
"I guess I don't understand it very much," Smith said.
That's the understatement of this fresh new year.
Seattle City Hall, surely you have noticed that rail ridership isn't exactly blowing the train doors off? There were only 14,399 average boardings per weekday in November — far below the 26,000 riders a day the trains are supposed to carry by the end of 2010.
Part of that is probably the slow economy. Or growing pains for a short, new rail line. But is maybe part of it that we're making it as inconvenient as humanly possible for people to get to the trains and get on them?
It makes sense we didn't build gargantuan park-and-ride lots or garages at the in-city stations at taxpayer expense. Other big-city rail systems don't have much commuter parking, either.
The idea is for the areas around stations to become high-density places where people shop, eat and live. The miniboom by the Othello station, even in a recession, is proof this can work.
But if a private landowner wants to set up a park and ride at his own expense — on land that is already a parking lot — shouldn't we be cheering them on? Not sending cease-and-desist letters?
What about all the pay parking lots on Capitol Hill. When the rail station opens there, are we going to shut them down, too?
As it is, the low-cost Rainier Valley parking lots sit mostly empty. As empty as the trains.
Some people are concluding that light rail's sluggish start shows Seattle is rejecting it, but I don't think so. There is one park-and-ride on the line, in Tukwila. It has 600 spaces. Last Thursday, at 3 p.m., every spot was filled. And there was a line of cars waiting for space to open up. At 3 in the afternoon!
People want to get out of their cars and get on board. If only we'd let them.
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to email@example.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
firstname.lastname@example.org | 206-464-2086
Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom describes some of the factors that may have led to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon on Thursday, May 23.