Free Parking Still Not a Transit Investment

Will Rogers once said, “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” While that may be true, he didn’t even bother to explain what happens if you’re on the wrong track.

Park & Ride SignAs a region, we continue to be on the wrong track when it comes to how we spend millions of dollars a year of transit capital funding. We still spend our transit dollars subsidizing the car storage habits of transit users. While we spend millions of dollars to “buy” hundreds of riders a day, existing transit users lack places to safely wait, meaningful signage, reliable service, and so on.

Two years ago, I exposed the bad math that justifies “free” parking to buy transit riders. Since then, we have apparently not learned our lesson. Buried in December’s “Cedar Avenue Transitway Implementation Plan Update” is this gem:

The existing Apple Valley Transit Station (AVTS) park and ride facility is operating at 110 percent capacity. … To expand the current capacity of 768 spaces to meet existing and forecasted demand, MVTA received federal funding and regional transit capital (RTC) funding for a $6.6 million two-level, 330 parking space expansion to the ramp.

The math

Apple Valley Transit Station seen during Red Line construction in October 2012.

Apple Valley Transit Station seen during Red Line construction in October 2012.

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).

hwy610nobleparkandrideAnd, 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.

Aside: If I was Mayor of Apple Valley at the time, I would be more upset at losing property tax base in perpetuity for the sake of more car storage. That’s because AVTS used to be a much smaller facility across 155th Street, which is now used as a layover facility. The new station replaced a former Menard’s big box store which, presumably, paid property taxes. For comparison, the Cub Foods big box next door paid $259,725 in property taxes last year.

$20,000 per parking space is certainly a large cost. Could we put it to better use?

The opportunity cost

bus stop meme 2

Remember Streets.MN Meme Week? I’m sorry.

What could $6.6 million do elsewhere in our transit system? Tyler Schow already wrote that post: What could $6.5 million mean to Metro Transit? (Note: The powers that be didn’t care, since a contractor pulled a building permit for a $9.6 million pedestrian bridge.) Alex Cecchini also wrote a post titled, “How to Spend the Next Billion on Transit,” which surprisingly doesn’t include $20,000 parking spaces.

The rational responses

There are at least three rational responses for us to move forward.

First, we need to finally accept all the evidence which points out that walk-up transit beats drive-up transit, every time every place. Let’s adjust our funding and efforts accordingly.

Second, we should realize that a shortage of car storage priced at $0 is a feedback loop telling the parking provider to raise the price for car storage, rather than to subsidize even more supply of free car storage.

PARKING-CRISIS-CHINESEIf Parkway Pizza charged $0 rather than $20 and thousands of people ordered an Artichoke Deluxe every day, would their rational response be to give away even more pizzas? Of course not. Artichoke Deluxes and parking spaces share two traits – they’re rivalrous and excludable. That means they’re both private goods in economics. It means parking is not infrastructure.

It means the rational response it to charge more for parking, at least until the point at which the rational response was to make more money by building more parking capacity to sell at market rates. I explain a plan for starting to charge for parking at transit stations in The Dirty Truth Behind Park & Rides, and Alex Cecchini gets deeper into the numbers over at Applying the MAC Funding Model to Metro Transit.

Let’s get our transit dollars off the track of subsidizing car storage and onto the track of providing transit service.

Matt Steele

About Matt Steele

Matt's passion is fostering resiliency in local transportation and land use decisions. He's at @matthewsteele.