By Chris Roberts
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On a teeth-chatteringly cold morning, acres of parking lots at the Dublin-Pleasanton Bay Area Rapid Transit station are filled with cars glistening from a thin coating of ice.
The only conspicuously open spaces are close to the station, those reserved for carpools, the handicapped, or midday parking. The scene is much the same at almost all of BART's suburban stations, where each weekday brings a race to see who can arrive earliest and snag a space.
According to BART's best guesses, between 5 and 10 percent of commuters can't park at its most popular stations on any given day, and wind up looking for spots on surrounding streets, or paying for space in private lots.
Parking is free in all but a fraction of the more than 41,000 spaces BART provides, and commuters are allowed to leave their cars for up to three days without charge. The free parking program began, and continues, under the theory that it encourages commuters to get out of their cars and onto BART trains.
But the program has been so successful, some observers say, that the system is now choking on parked cars.
The extension of BART to San Francisco International Airport, scheduled to open in 2002, will only exacerbate the parking shortage, some BART directors contend. It won't take long for airport travelers to figure out that parking at a free BART lot, and taking the train to the airport, is a better deal than paying $11 to $14 a day -- or more -- for airport parking.
And there's also an equity issue regarding the free parking. While all BART riders, in effect, subsidize the free parking, only 25 percent of them actually use it. More than 99 percent of BART's parking is at suburban stations, while San Francisco's urban dwellers enjoy only 54 parking spaces.
Some BART officials -- at the behest of the San Francisco Bay chapter of the Sierra Club -- are now seriously weighing whether parking fees might help curb the problem.
Charging for spots, the Sierra Club contends, would help BART manage its parking better and might generate enough money to allow lower fares. More importantly, Sierra Club activists say, a fee would be fairer to riders who don't use the parking lots, or who live in the city. Reasonable fees, the activists believe, wouldn't force commuters back into their cars, because BART would still be cheaper than the prohibitive cost of downtown parking.
But BART board members are split on whether a parking fee is the best way to go. Those disinclined wonder whether the fees will drive commuters from BART, and whether the transit agency could even recoup the cost of collecting them.
"I am not interested in just putting on parking charges because some environmental group is jumping up and down about it," says Thomas Blalock, vice president of the BART board. "To me it does not make sense unless it's really going to pay for itself."
While it may not be obvious to many San Francisco residents who ride BART only within the city, where there are few agency-owned parking spaces, BART is a giant parking operator. In fact, it is one of the largest in the country, currently providing 41,666 parking spaces. All are free except those at the relatively small Lake Merritt station, and even these slots cost just a quarter a day. More than 99 percent of the free spaces are spread near 28 suburban Bay Area stations.
Despite their enormous capacity, many BART lots are not meeting demand. At the most popular parking lots, 5 to 10 percent of the cars spill onto nearby streets when the lots are full. And at the West Oakland and El Cerrito del Norte stations, paid parking lots have sprung up across the street from BART parking lots. They charge $3 to $5 per day.
To meet excess demand, BART is now planning to expand its parking capacity at two end-of-the-line stations -- Dublin-Pleasanton and Pittsburg-Bay Point -- by 900 and 500 spaces, respectively. The extension of BART to serve San Francisco International Airport, comprised of four stations, will also add over 5,000 parking spaces to BART's current capacity. Within a short time, BART will have more than 47,000 parking spaces.
The fight to establish parking fees is being led by San Francisco Sierra Club Transportation Chair Howard Strassner, who has allied with city BART Director Tom Radulovich and East Bay BART Director Roy Nakadegawa.
Free parking, critics say, bleeds substantial amounts of money from BART to run the behemoth free lots. BART staffers estimate that policing, lighting, maintaining, and cleaning each of the agency's surface parking spaces costs $226 a year; spaces in parking garages cost BART $342 annually, a recent BART memo says. The cost of operating all BART parking facilities comes to about $10.5 million a year.
That cost, however, does not take into account the millions of dollars used to buy the land on which BART's parking lots are constructed.
Those favoring a parking fee assert that a large majority of BART passengers -- many of whom are inner-city residents who don't use free parking -- pay for a relative minority of suburbanites to park at no cost. BART says only about 25 percent of patrons drive to its train stations.
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