My turn: Not yet built, garage is already obsolete

Posted: Sunday, April 13, 2008

A s the debate heats up over whether Juneau should construct a block-long, four-story cement parking garage running up Main Street to Second Street, it's important for all parties to keep in mind that we all share a common objective: to free up parking in the downtown core so that people who live downtown or who want to shop or take care of other short-term business downtown can find a parking place.

In trying to solve this problem, we stand together as a community at a fork in Juneau's planning road. One way circles back around to the past, when the solution to a parking crunch was to build more garages and parking lots; the other way leads to a future where commuters' cars are left at home while their owners are at work -- a future that the price of fuel is fast forcing upon us.

The problem downtown isn't really a parking problem; it's a commuter management problem. And it will best be solved by urban planners, not by engineers. If, instead of driving into town and parking for the day, commuters could drive a short distance (or walk or bike) to a heated, comfortable Park 'n Ride, catch a small, on-time commuter bus, and be delivered to the doorsteps of their office buildings, parking spaces downtown exceeding the static number planned for the $15 million parking structure would be freed up.

If we combined these few new small commuter buses with a carpooling program that set aside spaces for weekday carpool-only parking very close to downtown office buildings, we could make available significantly more spaces, without spending much money at all.

Clearly, the current debate on the parking garage is about a lot more than a cement structure. Embedded in this controversy are important choices that will set the stage for how we will conduct ourselves as a community over the next few decades.

At meetings concerning the parking garage, city employees like to argue that we Juneauites will never get out of our cars. These statements illuminate a cynical disconnect with the needs of our community, and commuters, in particular. What makes our civic leaders believe we want to go on behaving in a way that is bad for downtown businesses and residents, bad for the environment, and bad for our own pocketbooks?

On March 17, the Anchorage Daily News reported that "Business is booming for MASCOT." MASCOT stands for Mat-Su Community Transit, and morning and evening commuter riders constitute the business that is "booming." Commuter ridership on MASCOT is increasing so fast that five more buses will be added this year to its existing fleet of 10 commuter buses.

A 20-passenger commuter bus costs about $100,000. Even if Juneau purchased just five of these buses to be operated on two runs into town in the morning and two runs in the evening, we could obviate the need for the $15 million garage.

The Juneau Assembly has the legal authority to redirect the sales tax revenues that voters approved for a parking garage a few years ago (when gas was a dollar less a gallon). We need to make sure the Assembly exercises that authority by voting to table the engineering department's parking garage proposal and immediately directing city planners to get to work on a plan to manage commuter traffic.

Statistics show that with skyrocketing fuel costs, the number of commuter cars coming into downtown is already decreasing. The price of gas, which is projected to surpass $6 per gallon by the time the garage is built, can be expected to inspire many more people to find a way to leave their cars at home. All indicators tell us we are about to sink $15 million into a giant structure that, like the existing Marine Park parking garage, will sit half empty or totally empty.

The people of Juneau need to speak out now against a parking garage that, even now, before the first rock has been blasted, is already obsolete.

• Liz Dodd is a professional editor and proofreader and Juneau resident.

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