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Posted at 12:00 AM ET, 02/ 2/2009

End Free Parking on the Mall?

By Marisa Katz

FROM TIME to time we receive and publish letters to the editor that make what sound, to us and no doubt to many of our readers, like sensible suggestions. Generally we don't do much about it, beyond hoping that the folks in charge are reading the letters, too. Beginning today, we're going to try something different. If you send us letters that contain what seem like practicable policy suggestions, we will, from time to time, put them before the people in charge and ask what they think. Sometimes we may report back that a sensible-sounding idea wouldn't work, in our opinion, and explain why. But when a proposal checks out, we'll say so and push for it to become reality.

Peter Greaney of Columbia is the letter writer who got us thinking this way. He read one of our recent editorials about the sorry state of the Mall and proposed one way to generate funds for desperately needed repairs: End the practice of free parking. We called a spokesman for the National Park Service, which controls the Mall; the spokesman at first pooh-poohed the idea -- and then called back to say that paid parking is being considered. That's good news, because the proposal makes a lot of sense from both fiscal and environmental standpoints.

Mr. Greaney told us that the idea took root years ago when, as a stay-at-home dad, he would take his children to Smithsonian Institution museums. He would be there the moment the doors opened, but people who either worked or had business in nearby buildings would have snapped up the free parking spots supposedly intended for museum-goers. Since the spots aren't being used for the reason intended, why not use the opportunity to raise some cash? There are some 1,200 spots, mainly along Jefferson and Madison drives between 3rd and 14th streets and along Constitution Avenue west of 17th Street. That could generate as much as $4 million a year if the park service were to adopt the same formula of meter fees as the city employs.

That sum is, of course, just a drop in the budget when viewed against the $350 million in deferred maintenance on the Mall. But it could help on an ongoing basis, particularly if Congress refuses to recognize, let alone meet, its obligations to this precious public space. And don't get us started on the remarks of Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who dismissed the serious work needed to repair the Mall as "upkeep [of] the grass on the lawns of Washington."

Equally important is that there really is no such thing as free parking. The spots set aside come at a cost to the environment and to the general public. Just ask Mr. Greaney, who vividly recalls cars occupying the parking spaces with their motors running, waiting for the spots to become legal at 10 a.m. Not many people love parking meters, but it makes sense that people who use the roads should pay just as people who take Metro do. Park service officials say that paid parking is a "preferred alternative" as they study the future of the Mall. We hope that they don't study too long.

What do you think? Should people have to pay to park on the Mall? Please share your thoughts in the comments section. And if you have other ideas for the region, e-mail

By Marisa Katz  | February 2, 2009; 12:00 AM ET
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