The National Institutes of Health (NIH) wants to expand at its Bethesda campus, but despite being on top of a Metro station, wants to build a lot more parking. Why is that necessary? NIH thinks its “high-ranking scientists” can’t be asked to pay for parking or ride Metro in greater numbers like “regular people.”

Sound unbelievable? Just listen to this:

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) slapped down NIH at a meeting on April 2. NCPC has a policy defining how much parking is appropriate for federal facilities. At locations outside the core but right near Metro, like NIH, that level is one space per three employees.

NIH, however, currently offers one space per two employees. It wants to plan for 3,000 new employees and build new parking garages with 1,000 new spaces. That’s 1:3 for the new employees, but doesn’t bring NIH into compliance for the other employeees with NCPC’s policy, which has been in place since 2004.

If, instead, NIH fully met NCPC’s standard, it could remove 2,300 spaces even with the new employees, said Drew Morrison, aide to Councilmember Roger Berliner, who represents the area. Berliner and other local elected officials have asked NIH to meet NCPC’s standard, so far to little effect.

Morrison said that the traffic from all the cars driving to NIH impedes economic development in downtown Bethesda. “Many property owners in downtown Bethesda are telling us right now that they can’t attract new businesses to Bethesda precisely because of this traffic problem.” Reducing parking and driving to NIH, Morrison said, would improve that situation.

At the meeting, Ricardo Herring, NIH’s Director of Facilities Planning, repeatedly said that it was “impossible” for more NIH employees to get to work by transit. He said this is because many employees live in far-flung areas not near Metro (though he didn’t really explain why driving to Metro parking, like at Shady Grove, is not an option).

Of course people drive if parking is free

However, NIH also offers free parking to every one of its employees and contractors. Small wonder that so many people drive when it’s subsidized by their employer (and by Maryland, which has to pay for the roads).

Mina Wright of the General Services Administration pressed Herring on why NIH can’t try charging for parking. Herring said that was tried in the Carter Administration, but “there was a major rebellion.” Wright acknowledged that it might not be popular with everyone, but said that sometimes management has to do unpopular things.

Besides, it’s not unreasonable to ask scientists of the National Institutes of Health to respect their impact on the health of people who live around them. Presidential appointee Elizabeth Ann Wright asked, “What does it say when we encourage our nation’s top scientists to drive?”

Commissioners noted that the Bethesda Naval medical center, now called Walter Reed after the Army’s facility on Georgia Avenue closed and moved in, is able to operate with a 1:3 ratio.

National Park Service representative Peter May said, “There are ways to achieve 1:3 at NIH. There is no doubt about it. Other agencies do it.” NIH seems uninterested in trying.

Herring’s dismissiveness irritated many commissioners, who ultimately voted to disapprove NIH’s master plan. May said, “It seems apparent to me that the policy that NCPC has adopted and has been trying to communicate to NIH for ten years has not gotten through and not been communicated at high enough levels at NIH.”

The board’s recommendation is technically advisory, but chairman Preston Bryant pointed out that federal agencies rarely if ever directly flout NCPC’s express will, and strongly urged NIH not to either.

Watch the juiciest 13 minutes of the video below, or the full thing here or by scrolling in the timeline. Watch Drew Morrison talk at 54:20, then Herring respond at 57:17, May at 1:01:25, and Wright bring up charging for parking at 1:02:42, which elicits some of the most jaw-dropping statements from Herring until 1:07:13 when they move on to talk about bollards.

Oh, and check out those graphics showing the Metro service at 9:46 near the start of the video. Where could they have gotten those from?

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.

Tracey Johnstone is a recovering political pollster who is completing a dissertation on Russian economic reform. She is also secretary of the Action Committee for Transit. She has lived in downtown Bethesda since 1996, and previously lived in Toronto, Moscow, and Alexandria (before the Metro).