Sound Transit Plans Paid Parking Program as it Builds Another 8,000 Stalls

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Construction workers and heavy equipment at the light rail station near Microsoft's Redmond headquarters.
A large parking garage being built at Redmond Technology Center, an East Link station funded through ST2. Progress as of November 2019. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

Despite the pandemic-induced decline in parking demand at regional transit facilities, Sound Transit is still expanding parking and developing new tools to manage it. In a briefing last week, agency staff shared a new policy direction that would include daily parking fees at facilities in addition to existing parking management programs. The new policy is expected to be implemented by the time that East Link begins service in 2023. Alongside this, Sound Transit is opening a vendor procurement process that will support the spectrum of parking management techniques and provide new technology.

Evolution of agency parking policies

Sound Transit’s parking management programs have been evolving over the years. Much of it started with the initial System Access Policy in 2013. At that time, the agency established several key policies for how parking facilities were to be used and operated. First among these is that parking is meant for transit riders only during the day. The policy also stipulated that parking management tools like permits, fees, and technology could be used and that parking rules would be enforced through warnings, infractions, and towing. This eventually led to the adoption of a monthly high occupancy vehicle (HOV) parking permit program for carpoolers in 2015 at some parking facilities.

When the Sound Transit 3 (ST3) System Plan was adopted in 2016, it came with additional parking management policy direction. The board affirmed that the agency could charge fees for parking use. The financing plan for ST3 also assumed that the agency would net approximately $37 million in revenue from parking fees above the cost to operate a collection and enforcement system. Though a small part of the overall financing plan, the estimate is likely a conservative one. Seattle, for instance, collects over $40 million per year from about 11,500 paid parking spaces.

Then in 2018, Sound Transit further expanded the program to cover monthly paid permits for single occupancy vehicles (SOVs) under Resolution No. R2018-27. This allowed the agency to issue SOV permits alongside HOV permits at parking facilities where utilization exceeded 90% and at Link stations. Up to 50% of parking spaces at such locations could be eligible for permit parking, provided that HOV permits received priority and were free and that a reduced price applied to ORCA Lift riders who purchased SOV permits. However, the pandemic has led the agency to temporarily suspend the whole program.

How the parking management program has evolved over time. (Sound Transit)

Cratering demand during Covid

Parking demand has cratered since the pandemic started. Systemwide parking utilization fell from 92% in October 2019 to 18% in October 2020. The agency, however, is optimistic that parking demand will ramp back up once the pandemic recedes. With that in mind, the agency is actively planning parking management around future demand and intends to restart the permit parking program once the 90% parking utilization threshold is exceeded at parking facilities.

In the next five years, Sound Transit will add over 8,000 parking stalls as projects are completed (e.g., Puyallup Sounder Station and East Link, Federal Way Link, and Lynnwood Link), increasing parking supply by 54%. How this affects overall utilization rates in the next few years in a period of recovery is still unclear.

However, the next step in the evolution of parking management is daily paid parking by the time East Link service starts in 2023. Not all parking will fall into this category. Other categories of parking will still remain, such as free and HOV permit parking. The policy under development will resolve when parking facilities and what share of parking supply should be part of the daily paid parking program. Specific details such as rates and hours of applicability will also have to be worked out.

Sound Transit’s current parking management vendor contract is soon to expire with an August end date. The agency has already started the process to open a new vendor procurement process that will be instrumental in expanding the parking management program. A request for proposals on a new contract opens this month.

Yes, there will be app for that

Mockups of the PayByPhone parking management app. (Sound Transit)

The agency has set some expectations for the next parking management vendor, which includes a mobile payment system. An example shown in the briefing presentation was the PayByPhone mobile app, a system that the City of Seattle uses for on-street paid parking as an alternative to payment kiosks for people parking.

Sound Transit is hopeful that a mobile payment system will be flexible with the ability to phase-in services. Ideally, the system would be capable of managing monthly parking permits and daily paid parking fees, providing real-time parking availability information, and verifying transit ridership to use parking. Another ideal feature of a system is integration with the next generation ORCA card system. Full capabilities, however, will only be known once a vendor is selected.

Next steps

This summer, agency staff expect to bring two actions to the board to authorize the policy changes. The first is a direct amendment to Resolution No. R2018-27, which would formally allow the parking management scope to change. Agency staff have indicated that this would involve authorization for all parking facilities to be managed and allow for daily paid parking. The second is authorizing a contract with a parking management vendor.

During the briefing, agency staff laid out a variety of issues that still need to be addressed in designing a new program:

  • “What mix of products should we offer?”
  • “Where should daily fees be applied and how to balance against demand for monthly permits?”
  • “When will fees apply for the transit services offered?”
  • “Who will be subject to fees and what kind of discounts and/or incentives will be offered?”
  • “How will payment be accepted?”
  • “How will we ensure compliance with program rules and regulations?”

The agency plans to resolve these issues through equitable engagement with stakeholders.

In wrapping up the briefing, the committee turned to board discussion which was very short. State Transportation Secretary Roger Millar said he was “glad to see the agency managing the parking we do have” and felt that the agency is “doing a good job.” Looking ahead, he also noted that he will have more substantial input on the parking coming online. He has long been skeptical of the agency’s ballooning parking portfolio at the cost of real investments in transit facilities and service. And Everett City Councilmember Paul Roberts, a long-time boardmember, also commended agency staff for the parking management program. “For those of us at the ends of the system, this is always a challenge,” he said. “So the notion of trying to provide the parking to those folks who are also paying into the taxing district is just something that I appreciate. So I appreciate the direction.”

More information on a final set of policies and vendor capabilities will be forthcoming in the next six months. But how deferential the board is on general paid parking though is unclear. That could wind up being a stickier issue than the SOV and HOV policies of the past. Adding complexity to all of this, too, is how quickly recovery happens from the pandemic and what habit changes result from it.

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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. Stephen lives in Kenmore and primarily covers land use and transportation issues for The Urbanist.