Its parking program already in flux, the city of Vancouver is preparing for what could be the biggest curve ball yet: the Columbia River Crossing.
The $3.5 billion project would put three park-and-ride facilities in Vancouver to accommodate light rail, one of them near the heart of downtown. It's assumed C-Tran would own the garages, not the city.
The challenge? As plans currently stand, those three facilities would add 2,900 free spaces to a municipal system that now expects users to pay for parking. The change could further squeeze a program that's losing money as officials work to reshape it.
"It would have a direct impact on the city's parking program, absolutely," said Mike Merrill, the city's parking services manager. "It's hard to say at this point what the impact will be, but it definitely will have some impact."
The city's parking system lost $1.97 million in 2011, a loss driven mostly by debt payments on city-owned facilities. The largest of those, the 750-space Vancouvercenter garage, accounted for the lion's share of that loss.
City leaders recently launched a strategy of divesting from some off-street parking facilities. Last week, a money-losing contract at the Riverview Tower garage expired without renewal, saving the city some $50,000 per year. Vancouver took another facility off its parking inventory when it moved offices to 415 W. Sixth St., though the old City Hall garage was actually a money-maker, Merrill said.
All told, the city now has about 3,400 on- and off-street parking spaces in its downtown system. The three CRC park-and-rides would add almost as many on top of that — but for a different purpose. The effect on the city, as always, depends on the details.
"It's a really challenging situation to be in," said Portland-based consultant Rick Williams, whose firm prepared a series of reports for Vancouver beginning last year. "Not always do those parking supplies match up."
In addition to replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge and rebuilding the freeway on both sides of the Columbia River, the CRC would add a light rail extension from Portland to Vancouver's Clark College. The three resulting park-and-rides would land at the college (1,910 spaces), at 16th and Washington streets (420 spaces) and at Fifth and Columbia streets (570 spaces).
One key question: whether light rail riders will be charged to leave their cars at a park-and-ride facility. Current plans say no. Existing park-and-rides in the Portland area are free, too.
But charging users in Vancouver for additional revenue has been raised as a possibility, even suggested by the Expert Review Panel that looked at C-Tran's high-capacity transit plans earlier this year. That decision hasn't been made, but the idea will be on the table, said C-Tran public affairs director Scott Patterson.
If the facilities are free — and intended for transit users only — enforcement becomes key, Williams said. Otherwise, regular downtown visitors might skip the parking meter and head for the free garage.
"The city could lose revenue from those who want to game the system," Williams said. "Technology that manages the system is going to be critical."
A sort of hybrid arrangement may give the city shared use of the facilities, even if it doesn't own them. That option could come into play during nonpeak-commuting hours, for example, or special events in the downtown area, said city project development director Matt Ransom.
Regardless of how the CRC park-and-rides work, the implications for Vancouver are more than financial. The City Center Redevelopment Authority is among those that have criticized the facilities' proposed style and use. Others question the economic benefit of a structure that, by design, ships people away from the city's downtown business core.
"The facility is constructed so that people can use it, get on mass transit and go somewhere else," Merrill said.
It's a complicated situation for a city trying to boost its downtown while encouraging alternative transportation modes, Williams said. Accomplishing both goals can be a difficult balance, he said.
Concepts for the two smaller CRC park-and-rides include retail space on the bottom level, required by city code. But filling that space is no guarantee.
The city, C-Tran and the CRC project office have already begun discussing how to manage park-and-rides to the best interest of all parties. That strategy hasn't fully taken shape yet, and the conversation will largely depend on how the overall CRC process moves forward, Ransom said.
The beleaguered project is currently set to start major construction in late 2014. But that schedule — pushed back before — hinges on securing key funding in the coming year and getting crucial permitting agencies on board.
As discussions continue, the city has raised the possibility of owning and maintaining the park-and-ride facilities, given its existing parking operations, Ransom said. But it doesn't expect to get unwillingly stuck with them: If ownership were transferred from C-Tran, it would be through a mutual agreement, according to Patterson.
Said Ransom: "We have a seat at the table."