Fix Downtown Columbia Parking Now

Monday June 15, 2015

•  Columbia •  Howard County •  ppp •  public affairs •  public economics •  revenue authority •  tax increment financing • 

Downtown Columbia has become more difficult to navigate in the last month or so. With the summer concert season now in full swing, parking has become a problem. Signs at Whole Foods, the Mall in Columbia, and other locations warn “No concert parking.” At least at Whole Foods on Sunday, they had a guard giving people timed parking passes with threats of towing after 90 minutes. We can discuss how good an idea that is later.

Downtown Columbia’s redevelopment will mandate a vision to manage parking. People who talk of mass transit finally coming to Columbia fail to understand the density simply isn’t there. Parking will be necessary. And the problems have already started.

I propose a solution: Howard County has the resources to fix this. The County can, now, identify one or more locations for parking garages in the new downtown. The County should then create a TIF to issue bonds for the capital cost of building new garages. Finally, upon construction, the TIF should lease the garages to the Howard County Revenue Authority (HCRA) for operations.1

The TIF has several advantages. The capital cost is paid for by the primary beneficiaries of the garages, Downtown Columbia residents and businesses. Second, the capital cost will be paid off quickly by the rising tax revenue we will see from Downtown Columbia’s redevelopment, something that will happen anyway. Third, after the bonds are paid off, Howard County can reëvaluate the utility of the TIF. Winding down the TIF would return the tax revenue stream to the County’s treasury, or the TIF could be used to finance other projects Downtown. Kicking this decision down the road increases flexibility.

Using the HCRA for operations brings other advantages. First, they were created to manage parking garages, though the original vision for an Ellicott City garage remains just that. Second, it would give the HCRA a revenue stream for funding other projects around Howard County. The lease-back arrangement allows the HCRA to take this project on without risking their own credit rating.

Downtown Columbia parking will be a problem. Addressing it today will keep the County from being forced to shoehorn in solutions later, when the best options have closed.

That’s a beautiful parking garage. Image by John McStravick / Flickr.

  1. Disclosure: I volunteered and was interviewed for the Revenue Authority’s inaugural board. I was not selected.