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(Published January 23, 2006)
It is ironic that the Williams administration finds itself at war with automobiles and their owners while promoting this week's reconfigured Washington Auto Show as a major showcase for the auto industry's consumer products.
The long-running battle over parking in the District, recently intensified by the mayor's new proposals for resolving residential parking problems — proposals that some call punitive, demonstrates that government officials continue to be unrealistic in their approach to transportation issues in the nation's capital.
As much as forward-thinking transportation planners would like the majority of Washingtonians to abandon their vehicles in favor of public transit or other more environmentally friendly forms of personal transport, that simply isn't going to happen anytime in the foreseeable future.
It's time for government officials – both locally and in Congress – to start dealing with the here and now at the same time they look to the future. A major part of that "here and now" requires that officials accept the notion that continuing to expand freeways and other major thoroughfares in the region will translate into an increasing number of suburban vehicles being driven daily into the nation's capital, where they will need to be parked.
There's a simple solution to many of the District's parking problems, but it's also one that Congress – in a show of benevolence toward a handful of well-heeled parking industry magnates who offer generous campaign contributions – has effectively banned for almost 50 years: municipal parking lots offering low-cost, all-day parking.
The congressional ban is the reason why the D.C. government cannot directly operate the surface parking lot recently created downtown on the site of the old convention center. Congress does not allow publicly owned competition for those expensive downtown commercial parking lots. Only in recent years has Congress relented to permit the D.C. government to operate parking lots in residential neighborhoods, but the District's elected officials – who also receive sizable campaign handouts from the parking industry – have failed to create such lots.
Municipal parking lots located near neighborhood Metro stations or along congested neighborhood commercial corridors likely would alleviate many of the daily parking headaches residents experience near their homes. Public parking lots along neighborhood commercial corridors also would help small business owners and their employees stop playing "feed the meter" to maintain their livelihoods.
Surface parking lots are relatively cheap for governments to create and maintain. They also can be easily converted to other uses at some future time, when the need for them wanes. Determining their initial locations might be problematic in some neighborhoods, but the District's anticipated consolidation and closing of several dilapidated public schools offers an opportunity that should be considered ahead of labeling those properties as "surplus." Perhaps the D.C. Board of Education could consider operating public parking lots temporarily on some of those sites until it becomes clear that the properties are not needed for future school use. Realistically, fixing the public schools should increase their enrollment.
As consumers continue to push the industry toward creating less-polluting vehicles that burn cleaner fuels, Washingtonians are more likely to trade their old cars for newer models than to abandon them entirely. Parking those vehicles in the nation's capital will continue to be difficult until government officials stop waiting for the problem to go away.
Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator