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“Free” parking, only $45,000 per stall

February 6, 2012 5 comments

Know your audience. It’s a common phrase but sadly, many fail to heed those wise words. Case in point: A herd of bicycles with helmet-clad riders standing in front of the King County Library in Bellevue listening to a talk delivered by an official from the library system.  A statue of Ghandi, commissioned by the Indian government, is pointed out as is the award winning architecture.  The library already has very respectable patronage but is underutilized, given it’s size.  The solution? A new parking garage. When you learn that these cyclists are touring the city of Bellevue brainstorming ideas for improved bicycle access, you may wonder if there is a bicycle-themed speech being delivered to a group of patrons who arrived by car.

Even after setting aside the “know your audience” issue, the facts presented do not convince us that a garage is truly needed.  One example: Many parking spots were freed up after the Library hired a parking management company and asked patrons to register for visits longer than 3 hours. Additionally, 25% of visits to the library are to drop off or pick up reserved materials and yet there are were only two parking spots reserved for short visits. To top it all off, charging for parking was considered but rejected since the library board has a philosophy of services being available “free to all”.

Let’s dig into the numbers a bit. The parking facility currently being built will house 362 cars, up from 199 before construction started. The cost of the additional 163 parking spots will be, depending on the number you use, anywhere from $7.4 and $11.3 Million. Using the lower cost estimate of $7.4 million, which is more recent and presumably reflects lower current construction costs, that works out to over $45,000 *per additional parking spot*. Read that number again: $45,000 per additional “free” parking space. I’m left wondering how many books or librarian hours that $7.4 Million, not including financing costs, would buy.

I’m not suggesting that the majority of Bellevue library patrons will always be able to take the bus, bike, or walk to the library. But plenty of viable alternatives to the private automobile exist today. The Bellevue Transit Center is a short walk from the library, 4 Metro bus routes have stops within 2 blocks, and the highest ridership route on the eastside, the Sound Transit 550, terminates at the library. Looking out further, SoundTransit’s light rail will serve the Bellevue Transit Center, a bike facility along NE 12th will connect to the mixed development slated for the Bel-Red corridor, and people are already moving into homes in downtown Bellevue just a short walk away.

All of this comes after the Library asked for and voters approved a tax increase in 2010 to continue funding library services at current levels. Given all of this, is it really that difficult to contemplate a library parking lot with reasonable restrictions and fees?  If the Seattle central library, with only 143 parking spots and 20 minutes of free parking for patrons picking up materials, can do it, why not the Bellevue library?  I have always been an outspoken supporter of the library system and have voted for every library ballot measure that has been put before me. But I’m more interested in books and the online databases the library gives me access to.  If I really need to stash my car at the library I don’t expect the taxpayers of King County to pay for my parking, especially since there are so many other ways to get there.  For me, the days of reflexively voting for additional library taxes are over: More library services? Yes. More publicly subsidized “free” parking? No.

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