Study: Free Parking at Rail Stations Is Costing RTD Big Time

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Photo: David Sachs

There’s no such thing as free parking. Just ask RTD. It costs the agency millions of dollars a year to give away spaces at its expansive park-and-ride lots, according to a study it released last month [PDF].

Across metro Denver, RTD could raise tens of millions of dollars annually if it charged for parking. That’s money which could be spent on more frequent service or more affordable fares, instead of subsidizing driving and parking.

Subsidized parking is the norm at RTD stations because that’s how the state legislature wanted it. Yes, it’s illegal for RTD to charge people who live within its sprawling tax district to park (at least for the first 24 hours, after which it costs all of $2 per day).

RTD is not blameless. It has a penchant for building drive-to transit stations, not transit anchoring walkable neighborhoods. The agency owns about 34,000 parking spaces — a number that could grow to 52,000 as more stations open in the years ahead, according to Brian Welch, the study’s project manager.

This study, initiated by the RTD board of directors, does not address the possibility of shifting away from the park-and-ride station model, but it does illustrate why legislators should loosen the restrictions on charging for parking.

The study shows that “implementation of a widespread pay-for-parking program would in fact be worth it,” said Welch, “from a financial point of view.”

So — what if RTD charged drivers a little bit to store their private vehicles?

The study tested three scenarios. In the lowest price scenario, in-district drivers would pay $2 per day. In the highest price scenario, they would pay $5 per day, or $7 at high-demand stations. Whether any scenario would be a net revenue generator depends on the effect on ridership.

All three scenarios would generate a surplus, the study authors found, of at least $10 million and as much as $22 million annually. The latter number equals 5 percent of RTD’s total budget this year.

  • John Riecke

    Unfortunately RTD is also disallowed from developing its stations. It’s free parking or zilch, per the schmucks in the statehouse.

    • Sort of. RTD can and does sell the property previously occupied by surface lots at the park-n-rides to developers. Look at Alameda Station and the plans for I-25 and Broadway station.

      I agree that it’s not an ideal scenario, but it’s better than free parking or zilch.

  • ScooterHat

    Did anyone calculate how many commuters would stop using mass transit if they now have an additional $40-$140 per month fee for parking?

    • Joe Linton

      Any ridership loss from charging for parking would likely be offset by ridership increases when parking revenue is used to improve service. Transit agencies providing free parking is a very costly loss leader. Better to invest in frequent service than to subsidize a small number of drivers.

  • Chris

    It seems like the models from page 14 on show some variation. I think a charge for some parking is fare. Those spots are expensive and 20-30 years down the road these garages will need major updates. Well, hopefully we have eliminated the need for them by then, but nonetheless someone has to pay for their upkeep and eventual major upgrades. Event $1.00 would start making a dent in this. But if it were to increase services people may have access to buses near them more frequently to get to the station or the light rail may run more frequently, making it more enticing for people to use.

  • Ryan Keeney

    Would it be possible to lower fares by charging for parking? If so, by how much?

  • LevelHead

    I have a coworker that drives everyday to a park and ride even though he lives a mile from the station and admitted it’s an easy bike ride. He noted should there be a fee imposed he would just bike pretty much all the time.

    • Joe Linton

      Yup – free parking incentivizes driving – over bicycling, walking or taking the bus.

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