Parking space push runs counter to urban wisdom

Most cities seeking ways to limit traffic

February 23, 2002|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

In a city with one of the nation's worst air pollution problems and a state where the governor is trying to double mass transit use, Baltimore and its businesses are working overtime to make room for more cars downtown with more than 7,000 new parking spaces in the works or being discussed.

Other cities confronted with traffic congestion are taking an opposite route: incentives for those who leave their cars behind. But in Baltimore, the prevailing philosophy on parking seems to be build it and they will come.

"The traditional model for the city is to do anything to satisfy the needs of the downtown business tax base, and that includes making it easy for cars to get downtown," said Brad Rogers, of 1,000 Friends of Maryland, a statewide group that pushes for Smart Growth.

The city has about 48,000 parking spaces in an area bordered by North Avenue, Federal Hill, Greenmount Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Many of the spaces are not in the city's high-growth areas - but not for long.

A $13.3 million, 12-story parking garage with 650 spaces will be finished next year on East Lombard Street. On St. Paul Street, a 13-story garage will house 519 vehicles. Mercy Hospital's new garage on Calvert Street will hold more than 800 cars.

And other garages, near the Inner Harbor and in the East Baltimore redevelopment areas, will add about 2,000 more parking spaces.

"To satisfy the increased parking demand, you've got to knock something down," said John C. Weiss III, executive director of the city's newly created Parking Authority. "That's tough and very expensive."

He said he's looking for fresh ideas, but little new is on the table at this point.

By contrast, incentives to discourage solo driving into cities are catching on across the country - in Atlanta, Seattle and Los Angeles - although few measures are mandatory. Other cities, such as New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, have been offering transit incentives for awhile.

In Chicago, which also struggles with traffic and air pollution, companies have offered discounted transit passes as an employee benefit since the mid-1990s.

"It's a growing program and it's well received," said Jacky Grimshaw of the Center for Neighborhood Technology. "We have a very activist community of civic groups promoting transit and pushing it." Most parking lot development there consists of park-and-ride lots near transit stops, she said.

The Boston suburb of Cambridge is an example of particularly successful use of transit incentives and parking controls. Four years ago, city leaders there passed a law to discourage people from driving their cars into town. Today, the only way companies in Cambridge can build or expand a parking lot is by offering employees enticing reasons not to use it.

They chip in on bus and train tickets for their workers. Some run shuttles between transit stops and offices or pay cash to employees who don't use a parking space. Others have added locker rooms and showers to attract cyclists. Telecommuting programs are growing. Tax incentives help make it all affordable.

"We try to reach everyone, not just the companies required to comply," said Catherine Preston, who oversees the Cambridge program. "There have definitely been companies that have taken this on and championed it, that have not only met the goals but have done better without having to strong-arm employees."

Some fledgling programs to provide alternatives in Baltimore are under way.

Next month the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc. will launch a state-subsidized shuttle system that will pick up commuters from parking spaces near PSINet Stadium and take them downtown. And a few companies, including T. Rowe Price and Allfirst Financial Inc., already shuttle employees between their offices and outlying parking lots.

But some question whether such incentives would work on a large scale in Baltimore because the city's light rail and subway service have a relatively short reach. Companies here would balk at a mandate like the one in Cambridge, said Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

"I think most employers would feel it was a disincentive when no reasonable public transportation alternative exists," Hutchinson said. "For most of the last 10 years, the most common complaint by bosses was that their decision about where to locate, relocate or expand was always compromised by parking decisions. It wasn't that they had to have free parking - they just wanted to have parking."

Although the state two years ago began offering a generous "commuter choice" tax incentive package to encourage the types of programs offered by employers in Cambridge and elsewhere, only a few Baltimore companies participate.

The state has begun a $425,000 ad campaign that has generated more interest in the program. Still, the participants do not include such major city employers as Northrop Grumman, Bethlehem Steel and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Even the City of Baltimore hasn't signed up.

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