Ken Thoburn operates Wingman Brewers on Puyallup Avenue, not far from the Tacoma Dome Station transit center.
Thoburn said he often recommends that customers park at one of the transit center’s two parking garages when coming by to pick up a growler of beer.
“People are surprised when they find out it’s free,” he said.
For how much longer remains to be seen.
A consultant hired by Pierce Transit to evaluate operations at the transit center’s parking structures has recommended the agency start charging $2 a day or $40 a month to leave a car there.
The recommendation was presented to the transit agency’s executive finance committee last week, and its members decided to forward the proposal to the full board of commissioners for consideration.
Pierce Transit spokeswoman Rebecca Japhet pointed out that the recommendation is nonbinding, and that Pierce Transit officials have just begun the process of evaluating it and deciding on a course of action.
“Pierce Transit may adopt one of the recommendations in the report — or it may adopt none and take no action,” Japhet told The News Tribune. “If we do decide to proceed with any changes, it will certainly involve a public process where the public can weigh in at a public hearing or board meeting.
“If, after this process, anything did change, it would likely be a year or more from now.”
Parking at the garages, the first of which opened in 1997 with the second coming on line in 2000, has always been free for commuters, although Pierce Transit charges for special-event parking after normal commuting times.
Consulting firm Desman Design Management of Denver has concluded it’s time for the free parking to end.
The company, which was paid $50,600, studied use of the garages and parking rates in and around the Dome District between October and December before formulating its recommendation. Company officials also consulted with the city of Tacoma and local businesses, Japhet said.
“Desman recommends implementing fee-based parking at the current market rates at the TDS Garage to raise revenue to cover garage operating and maintenance expenses, make improvements to the garage and to discourage the misuse of the garage by non-transit commuters,” according to a final report delivered to Pierce Transit in December.
Those “non-transit commuters” include University of Washington Tacoma students, downtown workers and others who park at the garages and then take the Tacoma Link light rail into the city center.
Monica Adams, a senior planner for Pierce Transit, told the executive finance committee last week that the nearly 2,400 parking stalls spread over the two garages fill up quickly on weekdays.
Some people park for long periods in spots reserved for short-term use, she added.
“We’ve been running at more than 90 percent capacity since 2006,” she told the committee.
As a result, people who want to leave their cars in the garages and then take the Sounder train or express buses to points north sometimes abandon their transit plans and drive, Adams said.
Charging a fee might discourage students and downtown workers from using the garages, freeing up more space for long-distance transit users, she said.
“We also have the opportunity to generate revenue,” Adams said.
The study estimated fee-based parking could net about $2.68 million over 10 years if Desman’s recommendation is approved.
Japhet told The News Tribune it costs nearly $70,000 a month to staff and maintain the two structures.
“If there were a charge for parking, the funds would likely be used for improvements at the station, such as better lighting and other things to improve the users’ experience,” she said.
Adams told executive finance committee members — Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson, Edgewood Mayor Daryl Eidinger and Pierce County Councilman Rick Talbert — that income from parking fees could outpace initial outlays for equipment and other costs by the second year of implementation.
Any change would have to be negotiated with Sound Transit, which uses the facilities for its services, Adams said.
The concept of paying to park did not sit well with some people contacted by The News Tribune last week.
UWT student Prab Singh drives from his home in SeaTac each weekday, parks in one of the garages and then takes the Link into the campus. Paying $40 a month to park would be a financial burden, the 21-year-old man said.
“I would feel really bad,” Singh said. “I would look for another spot to park.”
Amir Kashif lives in Spanaway.
Kashif, 54, parks in one of the garages and then takes the Link into downtown, where he works near Broadway Plaza.
Charging people to park in the garages would be double-dipping, he said.
“They took the taxpayers’ money to build it,” Kashif said. “Now they’re going to take their money for the right to use it.”
He also pointed out that people other than commuters use the garage, including folks heading into downtown to shop or visit the Museum District.
“It’s like stealing from the community,” Kashif said.
The Desman study acknowledged there might be an initial backlash should pay parking be implemented, but “it is believed there will not be a precipitous reduction because of the importance and convenience of the garage to those who ride public transit.”
Executive finance committee members had questions of their own about moving to a pay system.
Anderson said he was concerned that driving Link users out of the garages could hurt efforts to reduce car trips into downtown.
“I’m kind of concerned about unintended consequences,” he said.
Eidinger said he worried that some folks would stop using the garage altogether if fees are imposed.
“A survey of the riders is important,” he said. “How many people are you going to lose by doing this?”
Janice McNeal is president of the Dome District Business Association, which represents dozens of businesses.
McNeal told The News Tribune she’s glad Pierce Transit is studying the issue, especially as increasing numbers of Dome District visitors vie with commuters for limited parking spots in the area.
“How are you going to sustain the garage going forward, and how are you going to manage the supply-and-demand issues going forward?” she said.