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Montgomery proposes bigger parking subsidies

While they say there's not enough money to increase bus service, Montgomery County transportation officials propose to throw millions of taxpayer dollars at oversized parking garages.

White Flint conference center. Photo from Google Earth.

In White Flint, the county wants to use $21 million in proceeds from a land sale on a new parking garage. The garage would replace the parking lot at the Bethesda North Conference Center while adding more parking spaces. Officials haven't said how many spaces the garage would create.

If the garage serves a real need, then it ought to be fiscally self-sufficient. Marriott, the operator of the conference center, currently charges $5 per hour or $15 a day for parking. At those rates, a parking space that costs $600 a year to operate could easily generate annual revenues approaching $5,000, yielding handsome profits for operators.

If big weekend or evening events at the conference center occasionally need extra parking, valet parking could use empty spaces in the Metro garage across Rockville Pike. No subsidy would be needed.

The county Department of Transportation asserts that under an agreement with the Maryland State Highway Administration, the proceeds of the land sale can only be used for this garage. But a letter from former state Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley suggests otherwise. Swaim-Staley wrote that the state's interest in parking relates to its investment in the existing conference center. As long as parking is sufficient for that building, the state could free up the land sale funds for other transit-oriented projects.

Now, a pedestrian-friendly street network in the White Flint area certainly fits that bill.

This is not the first time the county's parking division has tied its own hands through real estate contracts to promote public parking. In both Bethesda and Silver Spring, sales of parking lots were structured so that the proceeds went directly into parking garage construction without ever appearing in the county budget.

A 6-level, $80,000-per-space public parking garage under construction in Bethesda. Photo by the author.

Meanwhile, the budget currently before the County Council keeps garage parking free in Silver Spring after 6 pm. Extending the payment hours until 10 pm would add substantially to Silver Spring's current $10 million per year parking revenues.

In past years, proposals to charge for evening parking conflicted with a contract between the county and Foulger-Pratt, the developer of the shopping area on Ellsworth Drive that was critical to the downtown revitalization program. That contract guaranteed free parking in two adjacent garages. Some downtown merchants worried that paid parking at the garages nearer to their stores would put them at a competitive disadvantage.

But the contract with Foulger-Pratt ends May 7. The Silver Spring parking district is heavily subsidized with a perversely designed tax that encourages landowners to build more parking than their customers are willing to pay for. Free parking in county garages after 6 makes things even worse.

County leaders tell the state that Montgomery needs more school construction funding. Spending the county's own money on an unneeded garage hardly helps their case. And it's hardly fair to give away parking for free in Silver Spring while bus fares and state bus aid are used to cut real estate taxes.

Montgomery County doesn't have money to throw around, and its urban areas are growing up. As they mature, they need to be gradually weaned from dependence on subsidized parking.

Ben Ross was president of the Action Committee for Transit for 15 years. His book about the politics of urbanism and transit, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, is now available in paperback. 


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Silver Spring makes back that "lost" evening parking revenue in how people go there regularly at night.
Those trying to get people "out of their cars" might consider how the Marriott Conference Center isn't mostly used by people living in town who would use the bus. Said Center is growing big, this is actually smart $$. Big Conferences bring in lots of money. They want little White Flint more like "North Bethesda", this is a required step.
Montgomery County been willing to throw around money around, unusually on projects less useful or worse planned.
(ex. They want to close all the current buildings and put a Concert Hall-Gym-Library-Used Bookstore-Culture Center in Wheaton, you know (Foulger-Pratt, who built the SSTC, is slated to make a mint off that), and put up an extremely fancy park employee office right in the lot where the town festivals and markets take place.

by asffa on Apr 17, 2014 5:12 pm • linkreport

If you start charging for nightime parking in Silver Spring then of course you are going to have to hire people to enforce that parking with tickets. The current policy, which discourages commuters from using the lots during the day while encouraging nightime shoppers, is a wise one.

by Woody brosnan on Apr 18, 2014 7:55 am • linkreport

I don't know about the assertion that the county is not obligated to build the lot. The letter cited is not the agreement but rather an explanation if the agreement to key legislators. It seems to say that the matter is tied to Executive Boulevsrd extension, so the way to get out of building the parking building is to scrap plans to extend Executive Blvd. But the letter is barely more dispositive than a blog post unless all copies of the contract have been lost.

If you have the agreement itself, better to upload and/or link to that. You could also ask MDOT whether it still wants the lot building. If it says no, then the county need not build it regardless if what the agreement said.

by JimT on Apr 18, 2014 8:30 am • linkreport

If the garage serves a real need, then it ought to be fiscally self-sufficient.

Not everything that serves a real need can be fiscally self-sufficient, especially when it comes to the transportation network.

by Falls Church on Apr 18, 2014 12:27 pm • linkreport

I find this article misleading. The garage at the conference center is replacing surface parking, which is always a good thing.

Secondly, the surface parking is being replaced by a realignment of Executive Blvd, which will help transform White Flint into a large walkable, transit-oriented, urban area over the next decade, instead of the traffic-clogged mini-Tysons Corner it is today.

Finally, with White Flint projected to grow rapidly over the coming years, usage of the conference center will likely grow as well, demanding the need for additional parking. The county govt is also going to use the remainder of land at the conf center for a multi-family building which could share the garage, not to mention the proposed large community park/gathering area nearby.

The underground garage in the photo above is replacing Lot 31, another ugly surface parking lot in the middle of an established urban area (Bethesda). The other nearby county garage is nearly filled to capacity most of the day during the week.

On top of the new garage will be a 9-story condo building, and 6-story apartment building, as well as ROW for Woodmont Ave. This development will extend Bethesda Row (one of the most successful new urbanist mixed-use neighborhoods in the area) east connecting it directly to downtown (and the future Purple Line station).

Instead of impulsively criticizing anything remotely auto-oriented, it sometimes pays to look at the big picture. I thought this blog was about promoting the integration of multiple modes of transportation (including transit, cycling, and walking) with good urban design, not how to punish those who do choose to drive.

by King Terrapin on Apr 18, 2014 12:58 pm • linkreport

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