Google Maps view of the Staples Mill station. (Click for larger image.)
by James A. Bacon
Here’s the good news about the Amtrak Station at Staples Mill in Henrico County: The number of passengers increased 8% last year to 345,000, making it the busiest rail station in the South.
Here’s the bad news: The suburban station’s 288-space parking lot is totally swamped. On any given day, as many as 50 vehicles park on curbs, driving lanes, grassy areas and other non-parking spaces, according to Peter Bacque’s article this morning in the Times-Dispatch. Passengers have encroached upon the lots of nearby businesses, who have resorted to erecting signs threatening to tow.
So, what’s the solution emanating from the Department of Rail and Public Transit (DRPT)? Enlarge the parking lot!
Yes, the first instinct of the department in charge of encouraging rail and public transit in Virginia is to make it easier to access the station by car. Thelma Drake, DRPT director, told Bacque that the department would like to acquire enough land near the station to double the parking. “We hope there are property owners in the general area interested in selling. We will not use eminent domain,” she said.
Somewhat more encouragingly, the state also is working with an outside vendor to provide a shuttle service between the Staples Mill station and a nearby park-and-ride lot. But it’s discouraging that DRPT’s first instinct is to spend more money and dedicate more land to parking.
The parking predicament at the Staples Mill Station creates an opportunity to think differently about things. A couple of ideas…
Charge more for parking! The state charges only $5 per day for parking at present. Has anyone at DRPT heard of the law of supply and demand? When demand exceeds supply, the price needs to rise! This is not a difficult concept, people!! I know that’s not the ideal solution for train lovers, who worry that a higher parking price will discourage train ridership. But doubling the charge to $10 per day still would make it cheaper than airport parking. Moreover, when the financial return on parking rises, parking supply tends to materialize. Perhaps it would become profitable for a private vendor to run a shuttle. Maybe some of the neighboring businesses would lease out some spaces, which, judging from Google maps, aren’t exactly filled to the brim with cars.
Rezone the area around the Staples Mill station. The land around the station is clearly under-utilized with nothing but low-density commercial right now. Among other consequences, Henrico County is not generating nearly the tax revenue that it could from the presence of an extraordinary asset, the most heavily used inter-city rail station in the South.
DRPT should initiate a conversation with Henrico County along these lines: “Dudes, would you like to increase your tax base without incurring a lot of additional infrastructure costs? Why don’t you try rezoning the land around the station?”
The Staples Mill Station represents a tremendous opportunity for both DRPT and Henrico County. Instead of having a station surrounded by the likes of Miles Auto Services, Gundlach Plumbing, Heritage Antiques and Anthony George Steak House, why isn’t it encompassed by walkable, transit-oriented development including mid-rise offices and apartment buildings? Professionals who travel frequently to Washington, Philadelphia or New York might place a premium on convenient access to the station. Not only would higher-density development stimulate a built-in market for the Amtrak service, it would support the construction of structured parking that potentially could solve the station’s parking problem.
Staples Mill is an under-utilized six-lane boulevard that could easily handle additional traffic generated by higher-density development. Such a project would be no-pain, all-gain for Henrico. Why aren’t Henrico supervisors pursuing re-development around the train station to bolster the county tax base instead of pushing for a meals tax that nobody wants? Because they are stuck in a rut of out-of-date thinking, that’s why. As a citizen of Henrico and Virginia, I’m not willing to tolerate such mental lethargy anymore.