GUEST COMMENTARY: Building a new garage downtown — unnecessary and wasteful

Wednesday, March 9, 2011 | 12:45 p.m. CST; updated 12:45 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The new 10-story public parking garage was finally opened for business last week, and criticism abounds about this behemoth of western downtown Columbia.  Lament it as many may, more sound economics and realistic pricing could have helped prevent this unnecessary edifice, and should serve us to avoid committing to yet another garage that is in the works for a few blocks to the east.

Since the city is in the street building and maintenance (and downtown parking) business, will it at least provide multi-modal avenues, whereby citizens may travel about by whatever means we desire (car, bus, bike, on foot, by wheelchair, etc.) in a safe and timely fashion?  This is a fair expectation, and it was the charge that citizens (including myself) expressed via the visioning process a few years ago.


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But this new concrete tower is very representative of a schizophrenic public policy toward transportation infrastructure priorities.  Bike lanes, trails and sidewalk improvements have been expanded to open up more active transportation choices.  Yet, regardless of one’s take on those initiatives, we are on the other hand subsidizing the exact opposite, with a huge public investment in a car-parking facility.

What behaviors government should encourage or discourage is one thing, but just plain math is another.  Therefore, I commend Mayor Bob McDavid for recently bringing up the more fundamental issue of who pays for parking downtown.  He is obviously a business-minded leader, who engages in cost-benefit analysis.

Although the public parking utility is a not-for-profit venture, I would appeal to the business sensibilities of the council at large to remedy the lack of market-based rates for downtown parking overall.   This is vital, because if drivers had a relative price incentive to use off-street garage parking, particularly the largely unoccupied upper-level garage spots, much of the ongoing perception of parking scarcity would be diminished – as would calls for more garages.

Many agree that we want a vibrant downtown, and realize that paying to park there is a disincentive in the minds of many.   But, actually no parking anywhere is “free.”  Suburban shopping centers spend a lot of money to pave their parking lots, so they pass that cost along to stores, who charge shoppers that much more in the price of goods.  The wide public streets that leave room for parking are expensive, too, as it is taxpayers footing that bill.  As economist Milton Friedman famously quipped, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”  Or “free” parking.

Because downtown is more densely developed, there is a premium on real estate of all kinds, including parking spots.   Since the city spent a lot on those spots, and the ones located near prime downtown destinations are naturally in higher demand, why do they only charge like 50 cents/hour to occupy one, & only a few bucks for getting caught not paying?  So why not park on the street, as opposed to in a garage any more than two steps away?  Or on the lower levels of a garage, instead of the upper levels that take longer to get to?  We can wish people would change their behavior, but as it’s priced now, why shouldn’t anybody just park wherever -- and there develop a perception of parking shortages everywhere?

This is because the City does not have the pricing structure right.  Therefore, a basic market solution to subsidized car parking downtown should include these changes:

1.)  Metered street parking should be significantly more expensive (not to penalize behavior, but to reflect its actual market value).  When London was once overloaded with parking demands, they quadrupled meter rates — and surprise — spots became available.  Rates need not jump near that much here to find a market equilibrium and for prime street spots to naturally open up.  Business owners and others might holler that this would discourage patrons.  But as it stands now, why shouldn’t the wait staff park in front of the store in which they work?  A business ideally wants that spot available for paying CUSTOMERS.  There are also practical ways for businesses to reimburse customers for parking costs, via technological upgrades to meters, as other cities have.

2.) Parking garages should have their ground level(s) be metered parking, at rates lower than street meters.  This gives an incentive to use a garage, freeing up the prime spots on the curb.  Have the 8-10 hour meters in these garages, too; street meters for shorter periods only.

3.)  Parking garage permit spots should occupy other levels, and have tiered pricing, with lower costs for the upper decks which are always less occupied.  The City does this to some degree already with covered/uncovered rates, and the most premium Reserved spots.

4.) Then, inside garages and on the curb, more (and more costly) enforcement.  $5 for a parking ticket is hardly a deterrent to not paying at all.  Fines are not consistently enforced, either, so many figure it is easier (and cheaper) to blow off feeding the meter and just roll the dice on getting caught..and some don’t even pay those...  Raising the fines to $10, and higher for late payments, as the Council did recently, makes sense.

It is apparent that current parking resources are chronically underutilized and not priced correctly.  But if that’s not bad enough, there is now yet another new parking garage in the works, in conjunction with the Regency Hotel reconstruction project.  Yet, the Hotel developer has stated they have sufficient surface parking as is.  Likewise, the in-fill apartment building at College and Walnut nearby includes its own surface lot, and they actually expect many of their tenants to be car-free, so won’t need additional parking from any nearby garage.

Even McDavid has stated that the Regency Hotel developer has already received a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) subsidy for the new building, so the Mayor is uneasy about also subsidizing a parking garage for him at taxpayer expense.  However, the push for this new garage persists somehow, from somewhere.  We seem addicted to taxpayer-funded parking facilities that are not really needed and effectively discourage non-automobile means of transportation in the city center, activity the city says it otherwise wants.

Which makes me wonder: if there is such perceived demand for parking, why aren’t private sector entrepreneurs falling all over themselves in a rush to put up their own parking towers, for big profits?  Because the demand for parking is not there, and will not be for the foreseeable future.  And if it were, drivers would be willing to pay, as they do in St. Louis, Chicago and London.

Everybody likes low prices and convenience, but at whose expense?  People that choose to drive downtown should pay for the parking space they occupy, and ideally businesses could be able to reimburse customers (like the Mall does, just in a different way).  More market-rate street parking would also offer an incentive to park in the (already plentiful) parking garages.

And folks driving downtown might discover it’s easier (and cheaper) to park once, then walk or bike to one or many destinations from there.  A more market-rate parking fee schedule would also naturally encourage more people to bike or walk to downtown in the first place, which seems more desirable than more disliked, unneeded, expensive parking garages.

Steve Spellman hosts “The Mid-Missouri Freedom Forum” on 89.5FM KOPN radio on Tuesday nights from 5 to 6 p.m., and is board treasurer of the PedNet Coalition.

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Corey Parks March 9, 2011 | 2:47 p.m.

"Which makes me wonder: if there is such perceived demand for parking, why aren’t private sector entrepreneurs falling all over themselves in a rush to put up their own parking towers, for big profits? Because the demand for parking is not there, and will not be for the foreseeable future."

Exactly but what do you expect in a country where most believe govt knows best.

(Report Comment)
Yves Montclear March 9, 2011 | 9:29 p.m.

The parking garage points you make are shortsighted.

The new census says Columbia population grew 28.4 percent in the last 10 years. I see no reason while it won't continue to grow at that fast of a pace every 10 years, into the long term future.

The parking garage may look empty now, but it will be needed. Just look at the traffic flow in Columbia if you want to see old road planning with no consideration for the increased traffic that is in the city today.

By building the parking garage now before it is truly needed, the city has saved increased costs of having to build it later as a 'rush job'.

That parking garage will be there for the next 50 years, and available when needed.

Long term thinking seems to be lost on the computer game playing, stock day trading, flitter and twitter, instant gratification younger generations of today. Yeah, the ones with short attention spans who probably haven't even read this far into my post.

Investing for the long term is never a bad idea. If you don't have a family, try planting a tree, and then watch it grow, Mr. Spellman. You might learn something about yourself, time, and if not

(Report Comment)
John Schultz March 9, 2011 | 10:26 p.m.

You seem to have keyed on the headline, which I doubt Steve wrote himself, and missed most of the content of the actual letter.

(Report Comment)
Corey Parks March 9, 2011 | 11:09 p.m.

Yves Montclear: You made good points if in fact it was the cities responsibility to use tax money to build parking garages and own property which it is not.

To validate the point building now to save more in the future then one would think the city should be financing power plants. In the future many will not be able to afford a car or fuel but they will always need electricity.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith March 10, 2011 | 5:44 a.m.

"If you build it, they will come." [Sadly, "Field of Dreams," the motion picture set near Dyersville, Iowa has finally gone out of business. There is still the Dyersville Cathedral and a well-known toy museum, both long time tourist attractions.]

Let's also remember the other builder of parking garages right here in River City. How many parking garages have been built at MU? During that same time period, how many new, improved or reconditioned classrooms have been built?

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock March 10, 2011 | 8:39 a.m.

Great article!

(Report Comment)
Linda Ferris March 10, 2011 | 10:35 a.m.

The garage would make sense IF Columbia was destined to become a magnet for high-tech industry and experience significant growth. But, as you can see, we still can't attract a Trader Joe's because we do not have a 500,000 minimum static population. But, St. Louis is not that far away, and growing rapidly. Maybe Columbia's opinion leaders and decision makers should turn up their hearing aids and have some discussions with the leaders in St. Louis and actually listen to projections of what people want. . . .

(Report Comment)
Jack Hamm March 10, 2011 | 10:56 a.m.

@ Ellis

"Let's also remember the other builder of parking garages right here in River City. How many parking garages have been built at MU? During that same time period, how many new, improved or reconditioned classrooms have been built?"

There are a total of 7 parking structures on Campus and most have not been built anytime recently. However, in the past year alone they have renovated or are currently fully renovating Switzler Hall, Tate Hall, and Jesse Auditorium. Plus dozens of other building's mechanical, HVAC and plumbing systems on top of overhauling the campus steam tunnel system all in the past 12-18 months. They have also built brand new buildings like the Orthopedic Institute and the Incubator and are currently building a new wing for the Hospital. I'm sure I am forgetting a bunch of other projects. If you want to go back a full ten years the list would be MUCH longer.

(Report Comment)
Jack Hamm March 10, 2011 | 11:01 a.m.

@ Ellis

How did I forget the new Brady Student Center which is now fully opened? Or the Central Dorms and the J-school which are both only about 2 years old?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith March 10, 2011 | 11:42 a.m.

Several of the improvements you cite don't appear to involve classrooms, which was the only item I referred to, but I see your point.

There's been a fair amount of construction/reconstruction activity at at least two of the four campuses.

Do you recall whether the new Brady Student Center received any state funding, or was it built entirely with private funding? Just curious, since we have student centers built on different campuses but at roughly the same time.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz March 10, 2011 | 11:45 a.m.

Linda, do you think the residents want 400K more people here just so we can have stinking Trader Joe's? That doesn't make much sense...

(Report Comment)
Louis Schneebaum March 10, 2011 | 11:53 a.m.

"But, St. Louis is not that far away, and growing rapidly"

Linda, just because you say words doesn't mean they're true.

Columbia's population increased over 28% from 2000-2010. It's one of the fastest growing cities of its size. It's growing far more quickly than the city of St. Louis, which peaked at about 890,000 people in 1950 and has since DROPPED to about 330,000. 2000-2010 marked the first population increase in STL in the past 60 years. The increase was far smaller than 28%.

(Report Comment)
hank ottinger March 10, 2011 | 12:11 p.m.

Whoa: "a stinking Trader Joe's"?? Actually, it's a pretty amazing place with good organic selections, great (and affordable) wine selections, and a quirky sort of cache. Population may play a role in siting a TJs, but I expect it's more about an assessment of disposable income, for which, I'd wager, Columbia qualifies. That said, I think a major impediment to a Columbia store is the dominance of the local Wal-Mart empire.

Sorry, I know this thread is supposed to be about a parking garage....

(Report Comment)
John Schultz March 10, 2011 | 1:27 p.m.

Well, maybe stinking is the wrong adjective, so I could have also used flipping or freaking. Wanting Columbia to approximately quadruple in size so Linda's dream store will magically appear seems somewhat narcisstic to me.

(Report Comment)
Steve Spellman March 10, 2011 | 11:06 p.m.

Ms. Montclear,
I don't take the "shortsighted" comment personally.

The greater questions are:
1.) who pays? (includes lots of people other than those that use the garages)
2.) who benefits? (those that park there at rates that do not support the cost of the garage), &
3.) who decides? (the planners that have no 'skin in the game' - it's not their money being put at risk, if the projects do not succeeed)

If one thinks these will be "needed," then put your own hard-earned money into the project, and make big profits. But, like I mentioned, there is no demand now and won't be for quite a while, at least. Even in a world of low interest rates, and inflationary pressures, the time value of money still exists. By the logic to put in place infrastructure now that we'll need 50 years from now might seem noble, but who foots the bill for the structure that will be underutilized for that period of time?

Now, planning 50 years out is a related, but different matter. But the same questions persist: who pays, who benefits, who decides? Our current paradigm to deal with these is largely overtaken with collectivist notions: that "we" must decide, and "we" must pay, and "we" all benefit.

(Report Comment)

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