By thudfactor on Flickr.

Metrorail set its highest-ever ridership record on Friday, July 11th, with a combination of a Nationals game, high gas prices, conferences and summer tourism driving over 854,000 people to the trains. But everyone expects that record to pale in comparison to January 20, 2009: the inauguration of President Obama.

And Metro is getting ready. Yesterday, they released plans for the day, including rush-hour service all day, commemorative SmarTrip cards, and security-related closings of Archives and one entrance at Smithsonian. And parking will be free.

Wait, what?

Parking will be free at all Metrorail operated lots throughout Inauguration weekend, from Saturday, January 17 through Tuesday, January 20, 2009. Metro has nearly 59,000 parking spaces and they are expected to fill up. Reserved parking rules will not be in effect.

If they expect all of the parking spaces to fill up, why lower the price? If anything, suburban riders will be more likely to want to avoid the traffic-choked roads of DC. I doubt many, or even any, people will say, “hm, I was going to ride Metro to inauguration, but instead I have to pay to park. I think I’ll take my chances and drive downtown.” They’ll sure pay downtown, too.

Metro stands to earn big revenue dollars from this day, which they need to shore up their financial situation. But then, they’re skipping a big piece of their revenue stream, which only benefits suburban riders over city riders. Those of us who pay extra to live in a walkable area don’t benefit.

Metro is also only charging off-peak fares all day. That’s less completely unfair to DC and Arlington residents (though still somewhat unfair), but again, why? They’re expecting huge crushes of people. Why cut the price? All of those tourists would certainly pay $1.65 per ride within the city on Inauguration Day. But the extra 30 cents can really add up.

Metro does have its reasons. According to yesterday’s WMATA board meeting, it’s general policy to make parking free on all federal holidays. That probably means public hearings to change the policy and exempt the inauguration. Also, many parking lots only work with SmarTrip, and visitors will get stuck at the gates without a SmarTrip.

There are surely alternatives, like paying one person to manually attend a line with a portable credit card reader. For all the money they’d get, Metro can afford to solve the problem in a slightly less efficient way. At the same time, Metro’s top priority is making sure that all the trains run smoothly and we don’t see headlines like “MAJOR CHAOS ON METRO; THOUSANDS TRAMPLED TO DEATH.” They’re focusing their energy on that.

Unfortunately, thanks to technological and policy obstacles, the car-dependent suburban riders get a free pass on the most costly part of their rides, and the rest of us just get squeezed.

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.