The only conspicuously open spaces are close to the station, those reserved for carpools, the handicapped, or midday parking. The scene is much the same at almost all of BART's suburban stations, where each weekday brings a race to see who can arrive earliest and snag a space.
According to BART's best guesses, between 5 and 10 percent of commuters can't park at its most popular stations on any given day, and wind up looking for spots on surrounding streets, or paying for space in private lots.
Parking is free in all but a fraction of the more than 41,000 spaces BART provides, and commuters are allowed to leave their cars for up to three days without charge. The free parking program began, and continues, under the theory that it encourages commuters to get out of their cars and onto BART trains.
But the program has been so successful, some observers say, that the system is now choking on parked cars.
The extension of BART to San Francisco International Airport, scheduled to open in 2002, will only exacerbate the parking shortage, some BART directors contend. It won't take long for airport travelers to figure out that parking at a free BART lot, and taking the train to the airport, is a better deal than paying $11 to $14 a day -- or more -- for airport parking.
And there's also an equity issue regarding the free parking. While all BART riders, in effect, subsidize the free parking, only 25 percent of them actually use it. More than 99 percent of BART's parking is at suburban stations, while San Francisco's urban dwellers enjoy only 54 parking spaces.
Some BART officials -- at the behest of the San Francisco Bay chapter of the Sierra Club -- are now seriously weighing whether parking fees might help curb the problem.
Charging for spots, the Sierra Club contends, would help BART manage its parking better and might generate enough money to allow lower fares. More importantly, Sierra Club activists say, a fee would be fairer to riders who don't use the parking lots, or who live in the city. Reasonable fees, the activists believe, wouldn't force commuters back into their cars, because BART would still be cheaper than the prohibitive cost of downtown parking.
But BART board members are split on whether a parking fee is the best way to go. Those disinclined wonder whether the fees will drive commuters from BART, and whether the transit agency could even recoup the cost of collecting them.
"I am not interested in just putting on parking charges because some environmental group is jumping up and down about it," says Thomas Blalock, vice president of the BART board. "To me it does not make sense unless it's really going to pay for itself."
While it may not be obvious to many San Francisco residents who ride BART only within the city, where there are few agency-owned parking spaces, BART is a giant parking operator. In fact, it is one of the largest in the country, currently providing 41,666 parking spaces. All are free except those at the relatively small Lake Merritt station, and even these slots cost just a quarter a day. More than 99 percent of the free spaces are spread near 28 suburban Bay Area stations.
Despite their enormous capacity, many BART lots are not meeting demand. At the most popular parking lots, 5 to 10 percent of the cars spill onto nearby streets when the lots are full. And at the West Oakland and El Cerrito del Norte stations, paid parking lots have sprung up across the street from BART parking lots. They charge $3 to $5 per day.
To meet excess demand, BART is now planning to expand its parking capacity at two end-of-the-line stations -- Dublin-Pleasanton and Pittsburg-Bay Point -- by 900 and 500 spaces, respectively. The extension of BART to serve San Francisco International Airport, comprised of four stations, will also add over 5,000 parking spaces to BART's current capacity. Within a short time, BART will have more than 47,000 parking spaces.
The fight to establish parking fees is being led by San Francisco Sierra Club Transportation Chair Howard Strassner, who has allied with city BART Director Tom Radulovich and East Bay BART Director Roy Nakadegawa.
Free parking, critics say, bleeds substantial amounts of money from BART to run the behemoth free lots. BART staffers estimate that policing, lighting, maintaining, and cleaning each of the agency's surface parking spaces costs $226 a year; spaces in parking garages cost BART $342 annually, a recent BART memo says. The cost of operating all BART parking facilities comes to about $10.5 million a year.
That cost, however, does not take into account the millions of dollars used to buy the land on which BART's parking lots are constructed.
Those favoring a parking fee assert that a large majority of BART passengers -- many of whom are inner-city residents who don't use free parking -- pay for a relative minority of suburbanites to park at no cost. BART says only about 25 percent of patrons drive to its train stations.
And some who want BART to start charging to park say free parking actually encourages driving.
"If I own a car, even if the bus runs by my house, I will drive my car because it is free," says Mike Daley, a conservation representative at the Sierra Club's Berkeley office. "Cars are competing economically with buses."
Nakadegawa and Radulovich, on the other hand, are dismayed that free BART parking seems to have created insatiable demand for more free parking. "When you give [parking] out free, you run out of it. ... There is no incentive to use [it] wisely," Radulovich explains.
Contra Costa BART Director Joel Keller at first opposed charging for parking, but now is sympathetic to some form of fee because of anticipated airport-related parking abuse.
"When we open the San Francisco airport extension, it does present a unique challenge to the district," he says. "We are now inviting people to come to the system and stay longer than 24 hours. Since we are making that invitation, we should deal with the problem."
The solution to BART's woes, the Sierra Club and its allies say, is simply to charge for parking.
They argue that BART should charge a flat fee -- a few dollars -- for every car that comes into its lots, and give daily commuters the choice to buy monthly passes for reserved parking.
How much reserved parking would cost hasn't been worked out yet. But those who favor parking fees figure that a few dollars a day for every car parked at a BART facility will add up to millions of dollars that could go toward reducing transit fares for everyone. Assuming, Strassner calculates, that BART charged an average of $3 a day, and 80 percent of its parking spaces were used on an average day, the agency would gross about $25 million a year.
"What I will do with the parking charges is use them to keep the fares fairly low. The vast number of passengers will benefit," says Radulovich.
And monthly reserved parking would be especially attractive to commuters, advocates say. "A monthly parking fee would manage the demand for parking and help our customers, so they wouldn't have to come to the station so early," Radulovich says, noting that BART customers get to the stations earlier than they need to in order to secure parking.
The Sierra Club proposal on parking fees has won varying degrees of support from a majority of the BART board of directors. But BART staff and board members have also raised questions beyond the Sierra Club proposal.
Carole Ward Allen, a newly elected board director representing parts of Alameda and Oakland, says she wants to make sure that whatever parking charge BART approves is not a financial burden on her constituents.
"I am for charging -- not a massive amount though. I don't want us to cut our nose to spite our face," she says. "Charging too much is ridiculous as well. If I park on a daily basis, I pay for the parking and pay for the fare, I am not saving anything."
Setting a fee that would not drive away commuters, but at the same time would pay for the cost of enforcing paid parking, is easier said than done, says Thomas Blalock, the BART board vice president.
And Blalock doesn't want to use parking fees to "punish people out of their cars." To him, suburban commuters, who already do their part for the environment by not driving to work, have the right to enjoy the convenience of driving to BART instead of taking the bus.
"I think the motivation for a lot of the groups clamoring for charges -- it's not so much for the benefit of the riders, it's analyzing the person who dares to drive to BART," he says.
The BART staff has recommended that the agency budget $70,000 for market research into various paid parking schemes. But the decision on whether to charge for BART parking may rest as much on political as on financial calculations.
Of BART's nine board directors, only 2 1/2 represent San Francisco -- James Fang, Radulovich, and Willie B. Kennedy, whose constituents are split between parts of Oakland and San Francisco. The rest all represent suburban constituents, who enjoy almost all of BART's free parking.
"It's a difficult vote because this kind of vote pits urban directors against suburban directors," says Fang, who is for paid parking.
To get BART to charge for parking, its advocates would need a two-thirds majority, six votes, on the BART board as required by agency rules. So far, five directors -- Fang, Radulovich, Nakadegawa, Keller, and Ward Allen -- have said they would support some form of parking fee. Blalock and Peter Snyder, a Dublin BART director, say they are undecided. Kennedy and Dan Richard, the president of the BART board, did not respond to calls for comment.