Dear Audubon Society of RI,
Thank you for your open letter opposing the State House parking lot, and trumpeting Barry Schiller's advocacy for more bike parking and transit at the State House. I am writing this respectfully as an open-letter, which I am putting as a comment to your letter, and on my own blog, Transport Providence.
Parking reform is a vital issue to transportation reform in the state. Parking is among the most expensive aspects of driving, but most of us don't pay the costs directly, and this helps to encourage people to drive. The design of surface lots in all directions contributes to a less walkable environment in which people feel aesthetically pushed to drive as well.
I disagree with one particular part of your letter, and wanted to respectfully point it out. It states:
"There are alternatives. Parking garages provide more parking spaces for the same footprint of impervious surface. The existing lot to the north of the Department of Administration and Department of Health Buildings seems to offer a site that would not be incompatible with land use in the area."
The problem I have with your group's statement is that it appears to leave open the question of who should fund such a project, and without specifying that it should be left to private markets, the assumption is that the governor should have instead opted to put public funds to garages. This would have been a disaster, and I hope the Audubon Society would clarify its position to state that it opposes such public funding for garages.
Parking garages provide more parking spaces for less land footprint as you state, but for much higher overall cost. Garage parking runs around $50,000 a space, with underground garages often running into six figures for each parking spot.
If left to a private market, and unbundled to other goods, drivers will have to pay the cost of this parking as drivers, and this will affect how they choose to travel. It isn't that many drivers don't already pay this cost, but they almost never pay it in their role as drivers. When they go to a store that validates their parking ticket to make it free, they have paid for the cost in the price of their meal or the goods that they bought. If the state were to fund garages, drivers would pay the cost in their taxes (non-drivers would pay that cost as well).
Choosing to put public funding into garages assumes that the public has some stake in providing what is essentially a private need. By distorting the market around parking--which for many trips, costs more than the gasoline used--policymakers have already spent the last fifty years encouraging the use of cars for every short trip that we make. There is no need to build more parking of any kind, garage or not, because Providence already has too much.
The state can have a role in encouraging garage parking, but not by funding the lots. It can enforce existing zoning, such as that that already exists in the Capital Center District, that bans surface lots. It can stop requiring parking through parking minimums. It can end policies that leave on-street parking "free", despite the fact that taxpayers are required to pay for its upkeep through repayment of repaving bonds. If travelers are left free to evaluate the cost of parking themselves--a cost which in real terms is greater than the cost of gasoline for all but the longest trips--more transit, biking, and walking options will appear.
Thank you again for your efforts on this issue. I look forward to seeing what's next.