Sound Transit later this year will consider imposing a daily fee to relieve congestion at its park-and-ride lots but will weigh that against the risk of turning away people who want to ride.

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As the cars overflow from Sound Transit park-and-ride lots, the agency’s leaders are considering whether to charge users a daily fee.

Supporters hope a fee would encourage more people to carpool, bike, walk or ride a bus to the lots, freeing slots for others, making the most of limited pavement.

There isn’t a specific proposal, and no changes are planned until at least 2013, although a staff report mentions $2, $3 or $4 as a possible daily charge.

When transit-board members delve into the details this fall, they’ll have to balance any gains in income and efficiency against the risk of turning away people who want to ride.

Crowding is particularly dire in the south suburbs, where the lots are overflowing, but the trains are nowhere near capacity. Long before 9 a.m., commuters can’t know if they’ll find room until they drive up. Some surrender and continue driving to work.

Room has run out at the Lynnwood bus hub, too, and not just in Sound Transit-owned lots. King County Metro’s park-and-ride spaces are 100 percent filled at White Center, Northgate, South Bellevue, South Kirkland, Bear Creek and Redmond.

Commuters would benefit from greater reliability if they could buy a monthly permit, and in return they’re guaranteed a space, says transit-board Chairwoman Pat McCarthy, the Pierce County executive. Or, there might be signs or apps to tell people in real time which lots have space, she said.

“I want the experience to be great for our commuters,” she said.

Filling trains is arguably the most critical job for Sound Transit, given that taxpayers spent $2.6 billion to build the first 16 miles of light rail, and $1.3 billion so far to establish Sounder commuter trains from Everett and the Tacoma areas into Seattle.

Sound Transit will guard against losing ridership, said Ric Ilgenfritz, planning and policy director. If some people balked at daily fees, there would be others later in the commute who would start riding the trains if lot spaces were more available, he said.

Along with the risk that a fee would repel riders, there are other downsides — chiefly that it would slice into riders’ paychecks. A 2010 study for Sounder guessed that a $5 lot fee would cause a 10 percent ridership loss.

Lorie Lazaro, boarding a light-rail train at Tukwila International Boulevard Station to go to work for a cruise line in Seattle, said she might look at riding buses if a parking fee were tacked onto her $5.50 round-trip fare. But bus routes to downtown were reduced shortly after rail arrived in 2009. So she probably would just spend an additional $40 or $60 a month. “I guess $2 is still cheaper than parking downtown,” she said.

Other ideas include restriping to create more spaces for compact cars; adding sidewalks or bikeways; renting adjacent private lots.

Some officials hope to discourage using spaces for nontransit purposes such as shopping, or as a gathering place for carpools. One idea is to have everyone pay, then give train riders a partial rebate when they tap the ORCA fare card in the station.

Sound Transit never expected to build enough park-and-ride space to fill its trains. For most of the past decade, elected officials focused on the arduous work of winning federal aid and opening the first lines.

Building new spaces doesn’t come cheap — up to $30,000 per surface space or up to $100,000 for a garage space. Sound Transit hasn’t estimated how much money lot fees would generate, but it wouldn’t fund a huge structure, only maintenance.

“You’ll never be able to build a parking space for everyone who wants to use the system,” spokesman Bruce Gray said.

Trains are gaining popularity. Link light rail from downtown to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport carried 10 percent more people this spring than last, and grew to 28,000 average weekday boardings in June. Sounder commuter trains carry 9,500 daily riders on the south line, 1,000 in the north.

Environmental activists are pushing for fees at Metro’s future Northgate park-and-ride garage, to deter driving and save money for walkways, bikeways or more bus trips.

Vancouver, B.C’s TransLink charges a $3 daily park-ride fee for its West Coast Express commuter trains, and fees for a couple of SkyTrain lots in the south suburbs of Surrey and Richmond. Ridership hasn’t suffered, spokesman Ken Hardie says. “At the same time,” he said, “transit itself is pretty heavily subsidized, and there are bills to pay.”

Portland’s Tri-Met doesn’t charge lot fees, except for short-term meters at a few dozen prime spaces.

Tukwila morning

Below the wing-shaped Tukwila International Boulevard Station, the last of 600 parking stalls filled Monday by 8:25 a.m.

A hybrid coupe took a lap around the lot, then headed downhill, where Dwight Brassel-Taylor, of Covington, found his spot: a patch of gravel at the end of a dead-end road. He walked through an apartment parking lot to catch a train. Most weekdays he can’t find a space in the transit lot, he said.

Nonetheless, Brassel-Taylor said he doubts a fee would meet the goal of freeing space for him. “I think it’s going to [set] people off,” he said. A better answer is to lease space nearby, he said.

“I think there’s been poor planning for the number of parking spots,” he said.

In fact, the likelihood of overflow was known before the 2009 startup, and Sound Transit signed an agreement with Tukwila to respond if the lot fills.

Fees might persuade some parkers to reach Link using the RapidRide A bus line. Mary Misikov, of Federal Way, said that’s not an option for her; she’d require a three-part car, bus and train ride.

“They’re going to charge me so I can get charged to use the train,” she said, waiting with her son Friday. If the point is to deter nontransit users, she says, it seems unfair to make transit riders pay more just to chase out others.

Some desperate commuters and Mariners fans have paid $10 to use the Ajax Park & Fly lot across International Boulevard, as early as 7:30 a.m. But a strip mall posts warning signs that light-rail parkers will be towed.

Sumner’s rush hour

When afternoon Sounder trains arrive from Seattle, drivers exiting the park-and-ride create a few minutes of gridlock in Sumner, says Mayor Dave Enslow, also a transit-board member. When people tried to “hide and ride” on side streets, the town of 9,450 people prohibited nonresidents from parking all day on side streets, just like on Capitol Hill in Seattle.

The crunch would be worse, but hundreds of commuters have learned through morning disappointments to stay away. “If you get here for the first train, you can get a parking spot,” Enslow said. “If you get there for the second train you don’t, depending on the day.”

He says he’s “pretty enthused” about parking fees, but says discussions are early.

Enslow hopes more people will ride the feeder bus from Bonney Lake, or that his neighbor who drives a pickup four blocks will walk.

Sound Transit believes it still can afford a $41 million, 400-space garage in Sumner and a $57 million, 600-space garage in Puyallup in the next few years, and space at Tacoma, Mukilteo and the Tukwila commuter-rail stations. But a long-term drop in sales tax, caused by recession, will postpone the Kent and Auburn garage additions that were approved in a 2008 ballot measure.

Sumner offers all 339 park-and-ride spaces for the Sounder. Since traffic is inevitable, the mayor says he’d feel better knowing those spaces are used more thoughtfully.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631


On Twitter @mikelindblom