The Bus Stops Here: Avoid the Congestion and Take the Bus Downtown

Madison in the summer can be so pleasant, with numerous pedestrian-friendly celebrations. Particularly appealing are those that block streets to traffic, enabling hordes of pedestrians to mill about freely and, when applicable, listen to music.

People who can, are admonished to go by bus, walk or ride their bicycles to avoid traffic “gridlock” and on occasion enjoy free bicycle valet parking.  If the event is held at the Capitol Square, people driving cars can also park at one of the public parking lots downtown and, with new smart-phone technology, check stall availability. They cannot avoid the “gridlock” that might be involved and may also have to pay for “special event” parking ($5 on entry to the lot), but they may have no other choice.

Ideally, they would have a choice, one that is both efficient and convenient.

Imagine a system in which buses could run downtown from north, south, east and west every 10 minutes or even more frequently, connecting to circulators that would stop close to one’s place of origin or destination or a system in which bike lanes are pervasive and sidewalks are much wider because the streets have only one or two lanes in each direction instead of two or three. Imagine a system in which driving is possible but people would consider it asocial and a last resort, not their first choice. 

Too expensive you say? Well, consider this:

Although there already appears to be an excess of available public parking at the City lots downtown (for various reasons to be discussed another time) and Dane County only charges its employees $15 per month to park at its downtown parking structure at Main and Fairchild Streets, most downtown development plans seem to include adding ever more parking, often at significant public cost. 

Just recently for instance, we read that the latest of ever-evolving plans for the area known as Judge Doyle Square include: (1) A 600-space public parking garage to replace Government East on that block to be owned and operated by the city’s parking utility at an estimated cost of $19.2 million ($32,000/stall) and (2) a 650-space garage to serve Exact Sciences and the hotel on both blocks to be owned by the city’s Community Development Authority and leased to the developer for 27 years at a cost that cannot be separated from other items that together come to $42.5 million.

In another recent article, this time on a “Capitol East” parking ramp at Main and Livingston streets, the idea would be to construct a 600-650 stall parking structure at a cost of about $12-13 million ($20,000/stall). During weekdays, the city would lease about 600 of the stalls to the developer for about $60-$70 per stall per month. It would administer the lot for other purposes on the weekends.  To put that into perspective, the cost to a regular Madison resident of leasing a parking stall during weekdays for a month at existing City-owned downtown lots or garages ranges from $105 to $190 per stall while non-residents pay $20 to $30 more. While those leases span 4 a.m. - 10 p.m., except for the Wilson St. lot where the permit is only good from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., few people probably actually want the extra mandatory hours in the morning or evening (some who do would probably use the bus if we could afford to have it run earlier or later) and would probably be happy to have the option too of leasing it for a shorter day at lower cost.

In fact, the developers could be asked to help underwrite the cost of providing their employees transit options by paying more rather than less than the regular fee for parking. The “extra” could go to help pay for the transit use of others.

The main point is that all the money being spent on extra parking could instead be spent on transportation alternatives that could make our downtown even more attractive and pleasant than it is at present. It could be used to make it more convenient to walk, use bicycles and ride the bus.  Provide people with real transportation options that include car parking and fast and frequent bus service all day/every day including weekends.  We can afford it.  And it is fiscally responsible.

What we cannot afford is a proposed borrowing scheme that would have 22 percent of our operating budget simply servicing debt incurred largely by the payment for roads that bring cars into downtown and that then need parking facilities