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Sound Transit will experiment early next year with charging people to use park-and-ride lots, which often overflow with cars each weekday.

The agency intends to test the permits at four sites — Tukwila International Boulevard Station, Sumner Station, Issaquah Transit Center and Mukilteo Station.

In the beginning, just 20 to 40 percent of slots at those sites would be charged, and those who choose to pay would get a permit that assures an open space. The initial fees would be low, $5 a quarter for carpoolers and $33 a quarter for solo drivers.

If this first round succeeds, officials say the programs could spread throughout the region.

Fees might someday increase, and perhaps cover every space in a lot. Rates could vary by location eventually, depending on demand for spaces and the preferences of local officials. Board members have sometimes talked about price incentives to encourage drivers to switch to carpools, buses or bicycles to reach transit centers.

The board unanimously approved the fees and other park-and-ride changes Thursday, after months of discussion.

“Our primary objective is to increase the number of transit passengers per parking stall,” said project manager Rachel Wilch. Staffers can count the boardings at a chronically full site, conduct customer surveys and see if there are increases in parking at neighboring lots that still have room.

There’s no specific goal for now, she said. The findings will be reported to board members, who can determine whether to expand the program.

Some transit riders are sure to grumble they’re being asked to pay for spaces that are now free — and built with their sales-tax dollars.

But Sound Transit board chairwoman Pat McCarthy says commuters will appreciate knowing they will get a space. She wants to use
the proceeds for improved security or real-time lot information.

At first, the program will lose money, because of an estimated $495,000 startup cost. This includes $273,000 to install traffic-measuring loops in the pavement, plus Web and mobile apps, at Federal Way Transit Center, Puyallup Station, Auburn Station and South Everett Freeway Station.

Apps will tell commuters how many slots are available. When lots fill, travelers could drive to another transit center or church-parking lots that are used weekdays as bus hubs.

Another $96,000 is set aside for advertising, evaluation and administration and $21,000 to distribute permits.

Transit agencies will spend $60,000 on ridesharing, for instance to encourage neighbors to van pool to a transit station instead of driving separately. Also, some commuters now drive into a lot and carpool from there, said Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray, thus taking slots from their intended transit purpose.

These moves alone are unlikely to relieve chronic crowding in the Seattle area, but elected officials are wary of imposing too much change too fast. The 2014 pilot project is greatly reduced from an initial staff report’s suggestion of a daily fee of $2, $3 or $4 per day for all spaces in the busiest lots.

Board members decided to “minimize any penalty to transit users,” Wilch said, so the 2014 experiment won’t even try to price the slots as high as demand might allow.

An average 19,212 cars per weekday used transit lots in King County during fourth quarter 2012, filling three-fourths of all capacity at 131 sites.

A total 37 lots, especially the major hubs, averaged more than 90 percent full. Of those, 18 were 99 percent full, meaning drivers routinely park in the roadsides or “hide-and-ride” in adjacent neighborhoods or just drive all the way to work.

At Tukwila International Boulevard Station on Tuesday morning, all 600 spaces were used by 7:30 a.m., when scores of drivers entered the lot, looped through the rows and surrendered.

Conditions are even tighter at South Everett, said City Councilmember Paul Roberts, a transit-board member.

“On a typical day, if you don’t get there by 6, 6:30, you don’t have a parking space,” he said.

Whenever he rides a bus north in the afternoon, Roberts hears fellow passengers phoning a loved one to pick them up at South Everett, where they didn’t find a space that morning. What they did instead is known as “kiss-and-ride,” when a commuter was dropped off that morning, at a curbside near the bus stop.

Roberts acknowledges the 2014 fees may be too low to affect regional demand. They’re a starting point to gather information, he said.

“It all starts to introduce the notion that parking isn’t free,” he said.

In fact, Sound Transit plans to spend an average $30,000 to build each of 450 garage stalls for the future Northgate Station, where Link light-rail service arrives in 2021.

Political disputes exist between green urbanists who oppose spending limited transit dollars on car access, and others who consider parking slots a workday necessity. New garages are planned at the South Bellevue Station by 2023, as well as the future Angle Lake Station in SeaTac in 2016, as Link reaches those sites.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or On Twitter @mikelindblom