Posts about Parking Districts
Psychological research has shown that people's brains naturally respond to arguments that support our point of view, but reject almost identical arguments if applied to issues where we disagree. That's why Democrats think Republicans are hypocrites, and Republicans think the same of Democrats. This also applies to policies about prioritizing walkable versus auto-dependent development. We might hear great praise for a financing structure that makes driving easier, and criticism of an almost identical system to finance walkable development coming from the mouth of a disciple of the auto-oriented worldview like Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett.
The Planning Board is exploring structures to finance redevelopment around White Flint. The project will generate enormous financial benefits for the county by increasing land values, growing the office and retail markets, and maximizing the investment in Metro. The Planning Board therefore proposed a special taxing authority to implement the plan. When the County Executive called this "redundant" and warned it might violate Maryland's Constitution, the Planning Board suggested Tax Increment Financing (TIF), an even more common model where the region dedicates the extra tax revenue from a planned development to the infrastructure necessary to facilitate that development.
Leggett frowned upon that structure, as well. According to the Gazette, "Representatives of the County Executive opposed that idea, arguing it is an unreliable source of revenue and it isolates revenue from successful areas instead of spreading it through the county." This is, indeed, a common criticism of TIFs, especially when handed out freely as DC often does. TIFs can help enable good development that might not otherwise take place, but they do also take some of tax revenue out of the general pool for many years. If a local government gives a TIF to a project that would happen even without the TIF, it's just giving away revenue to the developer and "isolating" money in one area.
In White Flint's case, the Planning Board is genuinely worried that without a TIF or other structure, the project won't happen. Therefore, a TIF seems appropriate. Leggett, however, doesn't think so. Most likely, that's because he isn't so enthusiastic about the plan in the first place. Leggett's representative Diane Schwartz Jones told the Gazette, "I'm not going to say it's a top priority. We have a lot of priorities in the county." Those priorities include the new sprawl development at Gaithersburg West, which Leggett calls an "important ongoing priority" despite having dim prospects for decent transit access anytime soon.
Leggett's sudden anti-TIF fervor is also particularly ironic because, just last week, he vehemently defended the mother of all "isolating" financing structures: Montgomery's parking districts. These districts dedicate huge blocks of revenue to their local areas, usually the most successful parts of the county. Moreover, they dedicate that revenue to one single use, parking. Yet Leggett believes that the districts are sacrosanct, and opposed any move to "spread [revenue] through the county" or even to non-parking users in the immediate area.
How can Leggett take one view of financing structures that "isolate" revenue on week, and the opposite view the next week? The answer is simple: like most of us, his brain responds differently to the same argument if it's supporting something he supports or something he opposes. His vision for a better, more prosperous county resembles the 1950s suburban model instead of a walkable, transit-oriented form. He would help less wealthy residents by building more roads and more parking so they can more easily drive an hour each way to their jobs, instead of adding convenient, frequent transit access and housing opportunities nearer their jobs. But that vision is unsustainable for the county, and the sooner Leggett or the voters of Montgomery County recognize that, the sooner the county will surmount of its fiscal, environmental and traffic problems.
Last week, the Montgomery County Council held a hearing on the second leg of their two-part strategy to restore Ride-On bus service cuts. The first part was to raise parking fees in the Bethesda parking district, fees which only rose once in the last twenty years and haven't kept up with inflation or Metro fares. Next, the Council must approve transferring money out of the parking district and applying it to Ride-On.
Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett's Director of Finance, Jennifer Barrett, spoke against the plan. Strangely, she argued that parking district money must only go to projects that "enhance parking services or manage parking demand." But transit does just that. Every person who arrives by bus is one who doesn't need to park at the destination, saving money, space, and pollution. Barrett said,
[Leggett] is opposed to the legislation because it represents a fundamental change in the authorized use of Parking Lot District fees. Expedited Bill 17-09 would, for the first time, allow PLD fees to be siphoned off for services that do not contribute in a direct way to the function of the Parking Lot Districts nor would these services provide or enhance parking services or manage parking demand.According to Transit First!, however, this is false. The parking districts don't save taxpayers from bearing the cost of parking, because while taxpayers pay for the roads in the parking districts, they don't receive the revenue back from on-street meters as they do elsewhere in the county. Likewise, the county garages don't pay real estate taxes. Technically, it's true that the parking district pays for the garages instead of taxpayers, but taxpayers gave up revenue they would otherwise receive, making the parking district more of an accounting sleight of hand than an actual self-sustaining entity.
Financially sound PLDs ensure that the costs of important parts of the infrastructure supporting our central business districts are borne by the business property owners and parking users in the PLDs. These costs are paid by the business owners through property taxes, and by the users of the parking facilities through parking fees and fines. The Parking Lot Districts were created to ensure that these costs are not borne by the general taxpayers of the County. The County Executive believes that it is prudent and appropriate to ensure that continues to be the case, and believes that this legislation puts that very goal at risk.
Leggett and Barrett also warned about the dangers to the districts' bond ratings from taking away money. However, suborning more important policy priorities just to secure a fiscal entity that locks up considerable money for the sole purpose of building garages makes no sense. If the county dedicated all property taxes in Potomac to a special authority whose only mission was to erect statues of County Executives past and present on every street corner, that entity would probably have a great bond rating too. However, it wouldn't be able to do anything valuable with the bonds, and would be locking away money the county needs for other purposes.
Montgomery's parking districts use the wrong model. They underprice parking and siphon other revenue that would otherwise go to general purposes and force it to go to parking garage construction alone. Instead, Montgomery should look to the Transportation Enhancement Districts pioneered by Donald Shoup, such as those in Pasadena, California. Those districts use parking revenue to benefit the surrounding community in other ways. They can beautify the streetscape, or fund other means of transportation to help workers and shoppers reach the area without needing more and larger garages.
The Montgomery County Council is following Transit First!'s suggestion to shift parking subsidies to restore Ride-On service. According to a Transit First! fact sheet, the Bethesda parking district raises only $8.7 million per year in fees, while spending $12.5 million. Plus, the district doesn't pay for street construction work, and the garages don't pay real estate taxes. Meanwhile, Montgomery County took $4.8 million from Ride-On in the current budget, depriving many residents of vital transit access.
The Council proposal would raise long-term parking spaces from 50¢ to 75¢ per hour, matching the price of the short-term garage spaces which would stay at 75¢ On-street spaces would rise from 75¢ to $1 per hour. Outside of parking districts, short-term spaces would rise from 60¢ to 75¢ an hour, and long-term spaces from 45¢ to 50¢. The plan would also increase Parking Convenience Sticker and carpool permit rates.
In addition, the Council is considering elminating free Ride-On service for seniors and people with disabilities, who would pay half fare instead. Kids would no longer be able to ride free after school, but could still purchase an unlimited Youth Cruiser Pass for $10/month. County employees would also no longer get free Ride-On, but would retain their discount for all transit if they give up a free parking space.
Transit First! points out that "Parking rates in Bethesda have only increased once in the last twenty years," while Metro fares increased six times. From 1989 to 2009, Metro fares have increased 47% to 94%, while Bethesda parking has only increased by 25-50%. It's time for those who drive to Bethesda to cover the costs of the garages they use, so that the County can shift its existing subsidy to much more vital transit service.
Moreover, Montgomery County should begin charging for parking on Saturday evenings in the central Bethesda garages. Currently, Bethesda's parking closest to shops and entertainment is packed on Saturday nights. The last time I was there, the Woodmont lot was completely full, and at any one time about 5 additional cars were circling to look for spaces. In the main garage inside Bethesda Row, every single floor was full. Why should people pay to reach Bethesda by bus or rail, while driving is absolutely free, despite putting more wear on the roads, taking up more space, emitting more pollution, increasing danger, and adding maintenance costs to the garages, when the trains and buses are not full but the garages are jammed?
The County Council will hold a hearing on the proposal at 7:30 pm tomorrow (Tuesday). The Council should approve the parking rate increases and add charges for Saturday evening parking at the garages in highest demand.
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