Udvar-Hazy's Parking-Fee Hike May Be Irritating, but Consider the Price of Admission

Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center raised its parking fee last week to $15 and eliminated free pickups and drop-offs at the door.
Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center raised its parking fee last week to $15 and eliminated free pickups and drop-offs at the door. (By J. Scott Applewhite -- Associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By John Kelly
Thursday, March 26, 2009

On March 16, the cost to park at the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport went up $3, to $15. This is:

a.) a necessary adjustment at a time of economic hardship;

b.) an outrageous move by money-grubbing museum administrators; or

c.) something that falls between those two extremes.

The museum also eliminated free drop-offs and pickups at the center, and that's what really irks Stephanie Miller, who lives in Centreville. Stephanie is accustomed to ferrying visiting friends and relatives to Udvar-Hazy -- she lives four miles from the center, the companion facility of the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall. Now if she wants to let them out or pick them up at the door, she has to fork over $15, even if she's just turning around and leaving.

"At Busch Gardens and Hersheypark, you can drop off and not be charged," Stephanie said. "Where does the Smithsonian get off?"

Claire Brown, a spokeswoman for the National Air and Space Museum, said the Smithsonian has a new parking contract that stipulates that the museum must pay the contractor every time the gate is opened -- except for taxis, shuttles or tour buses.

"It is true that the drop-off for people in regular cars is now at the gate as opposed to right up at the entrance," Claire said.

Said Stephanie: "It's just the principle of the thing." She doesn't like the idea of having to walk from the front gate. "What if it's snowing or raining or I'm dropping off my mother-in-law, who's only got one leg?"

Claire said drivers ferrying special-needs passengers -- such as the elderly or those with disabilities -- should call 202-633-1000 ahead of time and ask for visitor services. If they just show up unannounced for a drop-off, they will have to pay.

Hoofing it, I decided after measuring the distance yesterday, really isn't that much of a hardship.

My odometer showed that it is 0.3 miles from the gate to the Udvar-Hazy Center's front door. It took me about six minutes to stroll that distance. It would have been quicker if I'd had a 6-year-old pulling me forward, slower if I'd had a 3-year-old holding me back. I'm pretty sure it's a longer walk from the Smithsonian Metro station to the Air and Space Museum.

I think, though, that Stephanie's real issue is having to pay anything. The Smithsonian is meant to be free. After all, aren't our tax dollars at work here?

Well, the Smithsonian points out that there are few tax dollars at work at Udvar-Hazy. The construction costs of the $311 million center were paid for by private donations. Money raised through parking fees helps pay down the $41 million in debt that remains on the building, Claire said. This is the first parking-fee increase since the museum opened in 2003. Parking is free after 4 p.m.

"In order to not charge any admission, we have to raise the money from outside sources," Claire said.

So if you go to the Udvar-Hazy Center, you're not really paying $15 to park your car in one of the 2,000 spaces. You're paying to raise the gate. And that $15 isn't to defray the overhead associated with opening the gate but to support the museum. There isn't a stealth fighter on display at Udvar-Hazy, but there is a stealth admission fee.

That might be kind of sneaky, but I prefer to look at the big picture: Admission to the International Spy Museum in the District is $18 for adults, $15 for children. The Newseum is $20 for adults, $13 for children. Good luck finding a free parking spot near either.

What bothers me more than the parking fee at Udvar-Hazy (and I paid it -- or rather, The Washington Post did) is what it necessitates: a fence, a gatehouse, uniformed parking attendants. It gives the place an unfortunate penal quality.

The Eyes of Texas Are Upon Me

Next month, I'll be spending a week at Texas A&M University as a journalist in residence. It sounds as if tourists should be rapping on the glass of my enclosure or feeding me peanuts. In fact, I'll be mentoring college journalism students.

I imagine there are few places less like Washington than College Station, Tex. Still, I'm curious about the connections I can find between the two places.

Is that your alma mater? Do you have a child studying there? Did you used to teach at a college in our area and now lecture in East Texas? Drop me a line at kellyj@washpost.com. I'll be looking for column ideas while I'm out there.

Join me at noon tomorrow for my weekly online chat. Go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/discussions.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company