NWautos: Seattle's local source for new and used autos


February 27, 2011 12:00 AM

The problem with parking rates isn't the money -- it's the message


Katie Miller / Special to NWautos

In my experience, the three most beaten-to-death topics of conversation in Seattle are the weather, the traffic and the parking (or lack thereof). And since I try to make a point of not engaging in these lines of conversations, I spend a lot of time alone -- often in traffic, wipers beating on high, searching for a parking spot.

There seems to be widespread agreement over the futility of trying to improve the weather, but considerably less consensus around traffic and parking. The local media are full of chatter right now about pending bridge tolls and changing street-parking rates.

But even as the details get announced, I don't expect the storm of debate to quell: Some people think they should be able to park within a half-block of their destination and that the fee to do so should be close to free. I'm not so sure about that.

Yes, the region's "Parking Industrial Complex" has produced such sophisticated technologies that cities can now open and close their revenue spigots (aka their citizens' wallets) pretty much at will. Revenue from red-light cameras, parking tickets and non-moving violations contribute mightily to our city's ability to keep the lights on, so I have no problem with that stuff. You ran the red light? Pay the fine, Mario.

On the other hand, it will be interesting to see what happens with the reprogramming of the parking meters. The city of Seattle is planning to definitely maybe raise, lower or leave rates the same all over the city. It depends.

To achieve the "optimal" number of available spots per block, it'll adopt a "dynamic pricing" model. This pricing structure is about as straightforward and easy to understand as your cellphone plan. Peak, off-peak, nights, weekends -- who's to say when one ends and the other begins?

Most likely, given that we pay for meters with debit or credit cards, we'll barely notice the upcharges. Hey, when you gotta park, you gotta park. And more important than my bottom line is what raising the rates could do for Seattle.

With the extra money the city raises, I'd love to see it retire those three-wheeled clown cars and put the parking police in a fleet of electric Teslas. That would be a great image boost for Seattle, not to mention a morale booster for the ticket-writing troops.

Other big headlines concern tolling on the 520 floating bridge. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is actively engaged in a combination myth-busting/educational campaign to position this new system as boring and non-threatening.

On the agency's Good to Go website (wsdot.wa.gov/goodtogo), the various transponder devices that will be mounted on vehicles are described in terms of the friendliest everyday objects. One is the size of a "candy bar," one the size of a "popsicle stick" and one the size of a "thick-cut french fry." (Perhaps tolling technology will catch up with the culinary arts and give us a shoestring-french-fry version.)

In further support of my theory that WSDOT wants the public to feel that the new tolling is "no big deal" and "barely worth thinking about," they hired Bill Nye and John Keister to be the spokesmen in its public-service campaign. It doesn't get more non-threatening than that.

In the end, I think they should just go ahead and install actual booths, complete with espresso machines and friendly baristas. Heck, let's just strike a licensing deal with Starbucks and give it naming rights to the new bridge. Then every nonfat latte or venti triple caramel macchiato purchased by commuters would help fund the bridge construction.

The promotional campaign would be one that every Seattleite could understand: Cross the 520 bridge for the price of a cup of coffee.