Photo by nd-nÊŽ on Flickr.

The Washington area might have a ways to go to make suburban communities more walkable, and it might be the sport of the year to criticize WMATA, but at least we’re not Boston. While WMATA is making it a priority to and wants to avoid building huge numbers of new parking spaces, the MBTA is proposing a variety of terrible parking-related ideas.

The “T” is the latest organization to consider “privatizing” parking garages. Like the other bad deals such as New Jersey Transit’s, all this really does is sell future revenue for money today, creating tougher budgets for the next generation in exchange for a one-time fix. It’s more of a long-term borrowing plan than a privatization plan.

Are MBTA officials concerned about the many drawbacks of other parking privatization schemes? Apparently not; the only concern cited in the article is that rates might rise, as Chicago’s parking meters did. They want to privatize the lots, but keep the power to maintain rates below the actual market demand.

Most of all, such a deal would force the MBTA to keep its parking garages as parking for the life of the contract. If they want to develop mixed-use transit-oriented development (TOD) instead, their hands will be tied.

Though it’s not clear the MBTA has much interest in pursuing TOD at all. In my hometown of Acton, which has a commuter rail stop, the MBTA wants to build a parking garage on their current surface parking lot. Residents, understandably, are concerned it will just draw traffic. The MBTA rejected other ideas about making a connection to the nearby bike trail and improving pedestrian accessibility.

Absent from this discussion is anything about possibly putting housing and jobs on the site, which is one of Acton’s relatively walkable nodes.

This increase in parking was actually partly environmentalists’ idea:

The MBTA must add 1,000 new parking spaces along its commuter rail lines by the end of 2011 under an agreement with environmental groups to mitigate the impact of the Big Dig.

In fairness to the environmental groups, that settlement also includes a number of other, non-car-oriented provisions, like building the Green Line in Somerville. But while adding parking to commuter rail could improve ridership in the short run, it would generate more car trips in the long run as new sprawl farther out would just replace any car trips on the major highways that switch to commuter rail.

Better to pursue housing within walking distance of transit, both in the suburbs and city, which has the added benefit of not making the MBTA add even more money-losing parking facilities and further strain the budgets of the next few decades.


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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.