The next time you're driving around downtown Seattle in a futile search for parking, we suggest you avoid Sixth Avenue between Columbia and James St.--unless you enjoy gnashing your teeth.
Late morning at the carpool parking lot.
On those blocks you will encounter two large parking lots beneath the freeway that sit nearly empty all day. Under longstanding city policy, they are reserved for registered carpools.
In this case, however, supply is far outstripping demand. Despite our city's ever-growing obsession with green commuting, interest in carpooling appears to have plummeted. At the end of 2008, there were 352 carpools and vanpools that had registered to park in the city's reserved spaces. That number has since shrunk by over half, to 140.
Today there are only 88 carpools with permits from the city of Seattle. Yet there are nearly three times that many parking spaces in those Sixth Ave. lots alone.
"In the last couple years, utilization rates have gone down," observes Jamie Holter, a spokesperson for the Washington Department of Transportation, which owns the two lots and leases them to the city.
It's probably no coincidence that at the end of 2008, the Seattle City Council voted to double the rates charged for carpool parking downtown. (It used to be just $300 per quarter, or about 3 bucks a day.) The fact that several thousand Washington Mutual employees were laid off last year, many of whom worked downtown, probably accounts for some of the decline as well.
On a recent, late-morning visit, only 30 of the 236 spaces at the Sixth Ave. lots were occupied. A half-dozen of those vehicles were from the City of Seattle's own fleet; one was driven by a couple who pulled in to eat their lunch; and another contained a young woman whose frequent, furtive, questioning looks created some doubt as to the legality of her intentions.
On the plus side, the lots are so underused that, three years ago, the city gave over one corner (seen at left) to Operation Sack Lunch, which organizes daily meals for the homeless and others in need.
The environment's loss is Operation Sack Lunch's gain.
The lots are part of a network of discounted carpool parking spaces scattered all over downtown. Most of the spots are streetside, and in more attractive locations than under the freeway.
All this leaves WSDOT sitting on a severely underperforming asset during a major budget crunch. The rent Seattle pays WSDOT for the lots hasn't changed since the deal was first struck in the early '90s: $17,000 a year, a fraction of the market rate.
But WSDOT appears to be wising up. Holter says the agency is currently developing plans to lease out one of the two lots to a private operator, who will then open it up to the general public. WSDOT will retain the second lot for its own vehicles and those of the State Patrol.
Operation Sack Lunch, Holter says, will be welcome to stay.