The Crash of Carpooling

Seattleites arenÂ’t doing it anymore. All that remains are acres of reserved parking.

The next time you're driving around downtown Seattle in a futile search for a parking spot, we suggest you avoid Sixth Avenue between Columbia and James Streets—unless you enjoy gnashing your teeth. On those blocks, you will encounter two large parking lots beneath the freeway that sit nearly empty all day. Under long-standing city policy, they are reserved for registered car pools. In this case, however, supply is far outstripping demand. Despite our city's ever-growing obsession with green commuting, interest in carpooling appears to have plummeted. At the end of 2008, 352 car pools and van pools had registered to park in the city's reserved spaces. That number has since shrunk by more than half, to 140. Today, only 88 car pools have permits from the city of Seattle. Yet there are nearly three times that many parking spaces in those Sixth Avenue lots alone. "In the last couple years, utilization rates have gone down," observes Jamie Holter, a spokesperson for the Washington Department of Transportation, which owns the two lots and leases them to the city. It's probably no coincidence that at the end of 2008, the Seattle City Council voted to double the rates charged for car-pool parking downtown. (It used to be just $300 per quarter, or about $3 a day.) The fact that several thousand Washington Mutual employees were laid off last year, many of whom worked downtown, may account for some of the decline as well. On the plus side, the lots are so underused that three years ago the city gave one corner to Operation Sack Lunch, which organizes daily meals that are served there to the homeless and others in need. All this leaves WSDOT sitting on a severely underperforming asset during a major budget crunch. The rent Seattle pays WSDOT for the lots hasn't changed since the deal was first struck in the early '90s: $17,000 a year, a fraction of the market rate. But WSDOT appears to be wising up. Holter says the agency is currently developing plans to lease one of the two lots to a private operator, who will open it to the general public. WSDOT will retain the second lot for its own vehicles and those of the State Patrol. Operation Sack Lunch, Holter says, will be welcome to stay.

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