The fund that pays for parking garages in Bethesda may soon run out of money, Montgomery County officials say. The reason is simple: The county just built an expensive new garage, yet it continues to under-charge for parking on weekends.

The Bethesda Row parking garage is full and free. Photo by the author.

Montgomery County has special Parking Lot District entities to manage public parking in Bethesda, Silver Spring, Wheaton, and Montgomery Hills. Each one gets the revenue from meters along with a special tax that property owners pay if they want to build without the otherwise-required amount of parking. Each pays to maintain existing garages and lots and build new ones.

According to a report by county staff, the Bethesda district is in trouble. It will likely earn $21.7 million in revenue, including $13.9 million from meters, but spend $24.8 million.

The costs are so high for one big reason: the new underground garage at the corner of Bethesda and Woodmont avenues. There used to be a surface parking lot here, and a new mixed-use project has replaced it. But the county substantially increasd the number of public parking spaces at a cost of $80,00 per space, even though there are other public garages just a few blocks away which don’t fill up.

Why is parking free on weekends?

One nearby garage does fill up: the garage in the middle of Bethesda Row, with entrances on Bethesda Avenue and Elm Street. This is one of the most popular since it is so close to the very busy Bethesda Row shops. Yet on a recent Saturday, I found it to be totally full. At the same time, it’s free.

You pay nothing to park in Bethesda’s garages on Saturdays or Sundays — if you can find a space. Businesses have resisted suggestions in the past to charge on Saturdays, at least. But the businesses are thriving, and most of all, the garage is so crowded some potential customers are getting turned away.

Unlike in the other districts, Bethesda does at least charge until 10:00 pm. But there’s one simple step the county can take to increase revenue: charge on weekends at the most popular garages.

Maybe some suburbanites, so unaccustomed to paying for parking, will go to the mall instead. Though while there is also an Apple Store at Montgomery Mall, there are a lot of businesses in Bethesda Row that don’t have counterparts elsewhere nearby. It just doesn’t seem that Bethesda Row, one of the county’s most thriving shopping districts, is anywhere near in danger of dying off or that a dollar or two to park should deter people from spending $50 for a meal or $100 for a pair of jeans.

Alternately, people could park for free at the farther garages and walk a shorter distance to the shops than they would have to if they parked at the mall.

All the space in the new garage might mean that the Bethesda Row garage will stop being totally full, but that still doesn’t remove the value of charging. With the new spaces, more people will still be going to Bethesda, and using this infrastructure that cost a lot of money.

The fault isn’t transit or smart growth policies

The report also tosses backhanded criticisms to county council actions that have used some of the parking district money for the Bethesda Urban Partnership, the local organization that promotes Bethesda, or transit service to and from Bethesda. But if you don’t narrowly look at the district’s goal as only getting cars to Bethesda, it’s clear that spending money on these efforts helps draw more people to Bethesda without requiring more, expensive parking.

County staff also give the side-eye toward the county’s new zoning code, which relaxes some parking minimums. That will mean fewer buildings paying extra taxes to get out of too-high minimums, money which goes into the district. But the zoning aims to help places grow less reliant on people driving in. That, in turn, cuts down on the need to build new garages and thus the need to tax buildings to build garages.

We often go to Bethesda, and we do frequently drive there. We don’t need a subsidy from Montgomery County to do it, especially if it’s bankrupting the parking district. We’ll still go to Bethesda if it costs a few dollars. There’s a simple path to keep the parking district in the black.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.