Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

D.C. college students may lose access to residential parking

December 13, 2011 - 01:00 PM
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One city, a million cars. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

This morning, Tim McBride leaned forward before members of the D.C. Council with a big smile on his face. He spoke into his microphone to Ward 3 D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh, who led the morning's hearing on several pedestrian and parking proposals starting at 10:30 a.m.

"We’re actually in the midst of finals, so it’s good to have a slight break," the American University junior and Delaware native, grin ready, told Cheh. He wore a bright blue tie and a suit jacket, looking entirely appropriate for the morning's hearing. Today he spoke to oppose B19-217, the Residential Parking Protection Amendment Act of 2011. "As a student, I find this act to be unfair … Mobility is practically synonymous with college. Why are students to be singled out?”

The act will extinguish the $338 reciprocal parking permit for full-time students with vehicles registered in another jurisdiction.

The D.C. student parking problem is simple and allegedly growing in recent years — where will all the students park their cars? Washington, D.C. has several universities, including George Washington U, American, and Georgetown, and the crush of thousands of students has consequences. Out-of-state, full-time students like McBride want to park in your neighborhoods, D.C., and have good reason. To do so, he currently pays just under $340 for a reciprocity tag. But if he were to pursue a parking permit on the AU campus, he would pay $988 for the academic year, prices in place as of last May. The other alternative would be to apply for a D.C. license and plates, which carries its own weight of several hundred dollars and a decidedly more permanent undertone — and would lose the driver representation in the U.S. Congress.

But why might the D.C. Council prevent students like McBride from parking on their residential streets? Residents are, it seems, not entirely thrilled.

"I get an average of 10 complaints a week," said Tom Smith, ANC comissioner for Spring Valley in 3D02 and representing the Spring Valley-Wesley Heights Citizens Association.

Smith's province lies in the vicinity of three universities and he says his association voted 7 to 1 to support this bill and keep students out of our neighborhood parking spots. An aggregate of 77,000 college students live in D.C. and although it's unclear exactly how many of them drive and park in our city, the number likely numbers in the thousands and has serious consequences for neighbors who deal with their cars.

"Student parking on neighborhood streets is one of the most significant problems affecting a neighborhood near a university," Smith told Cheh and other officials gathered. "For many residents, their only parking option is street parking."

But several others rose to defend students. Sally Kram, director of public affairs at the Consortium of Universities, criticized the notion that students are the transportation nightmare that this bill imagines. What evidence is there, she asks, that this is a "city-wide" problem? None. She specifically suggests that the drastic congestion and parking issues concern neighborhoods in Foggy Bottom and Georgetown more than across the city. "I’m a bit confused about the need for this legislation." Kram said at the hearing. She warned that this law would have consequence and potentially "alienates one of [D.C.'s] likeliest source of future residents."

Other students from American University stepped up to echo McBride. One student veteran suggested that the law would cause an undue financial burden on one to two hundred veterans at AU. Bill Bystricky of the National Youth Rights Association testified to that effect as well: "The last thing students need is another debt like this," he said. "Why pick on students?”

Terry Bellamy, director of the District Department of Transportation, also testified before the D.C. Council today but avoided staking out a clear position one way or another on the proposed legislation. Instead, Bellamy repeatedly insisted that DDOT supported multiple modes of transportation for students, from bikes to Zipcar and Flexcar (rather mystifyingly mentioned, as it's been gone for close to half a decade). "Parking is not free," the director acknowledged and said that DDOT has records of about 800 reciprocity tag.

The D.C. Council probed the witnesses and conveyed a healthy degree of doubt about students' need to park on our residential streets. Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells wandered in partway through the hearing and noted that cars are a privilege. "I don't find it persuasive," he said of the witnesses' arguments at one point and later observed, "This argument for cars I do find dispiriting." Councilmember Michael A. Brown questioned the objections as well. He said he "cannot defend the policy that puts the convenience of university students, who may or may not stay [in D.C.]" above that of D.C. residents who pay taxes. Brown pointed to alternative forms of transportation. What of all our public transportation? What of our bike lanes? Cheh herself maintained a neutral tone of curiosity throughout the proceedings.

At the heart of this proposed legislation is the maddening differences in parking pricing throughout the District, whether for students or residents, private alternatives or even for car-sharing services (where companies like Zipcar pay upwards of $3,000 a year for a single public parking space out of the 84 the city offers). Why does AU parking cost three times a residential reciprocity tag? Cheh noted she pays about $2,000 to park at a George Washington University lot.  Is there any sane way to drive and park in the District? Today's hearing didn't lend much credence that there is — especially for the scores of out-of-state college drivers out there.

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