- Matt Mignanelli
The City of Burlington increased rates and extended paid-parking hours in the heart of downtown nearly two years ago. Encouraged by the results, city leaders are contemplating a more radical change: charging for parking on Sundays.
The goal of these changes is to make it easier to find and pay for a parking space — and to raise enough revenue to help the city parking system become financially sustainable. Specifically, the city needs money to repair and maintain its neglected parking garages.
Not everyone supports the move toward pricier parking. In fact, several city councilors called for scaling back some of the recent parking changes at the most recent council meeting.
Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1) is worried that keeping the meters running until 10 p.m. is making Burlington businesses less competitive with their suburban counterparts. Republican Councilor Kurt Wright (Ward 4) says higher fees put an undue burden on Burlington residents.
"I think we've dinged them enough," he said.
Both councilors are concerned about the talk of charging for parking on Sundays. But Mayor Miro Weinberger is among those who say that the idea deserves consideration and perhaps could be paired with free Sunday parking for Burlington residents in city garages.
The Downtown Parking Improvement Initiative began in 2013, when city officials started working with the Burlington Business Association on plans to address parking problems throughout Burlington. After commissioning several studies, the public-private coalition rolled out a new approach in November 2014.
In a nine-square-block area called the downtown core, the city installed smart meters, raised rates from $1 per hour to $1.50 and started charging until 10 p.m. instead of 6 p.m.
During a recent interview, Department of Public Works director Chapin Spencer emphasized the fiscal pressures on the system. "When this parking effort launched, the traffic fund was virtually out of money and the garages had structural failures," he said of the city's three enclosed public parking facilities. The department determined that the garages needed $9 million of work to stay open.
"We're having to make the difficult transition to a parking and traffic system that can cover its own costs," Spencer went on. "It's not an easy conversation to have."
While raising rates is rarely popular, members of the initiative say the experiment in the downtown core has been a success. During fiscal year 2016, the city collected $200,000 between 6 p.m and 10 p.m. — 20 percent of the $1 million parking revenue from the downtown core.
All that money goes into the traffic fund, which is used to repair the aging garages and pay for other traffic-related needs. Since the parking changes took effect, the city has made $1.6 million worth of upgrades to the College Street and Church Street Marketplace garages, Spencer said.
But he also maintains that the reforms aren't just about money. "If you look at it cynically, you may say extended enforcement is a money grab," Spencer said.
In reality, he countered, it's about managing the city's parking resources more efficiently: Those willing to pay more should have an easier time finding spots in the downtown core, while the frugally minded can find plenty of cheaper spots — and ones that are still free after 6 p.m. — slightly farther away.
Spencer also noted that the city will likely continue to tinker with its rates, adjusting them down on meters that are underutilized and up on ones that are frequently in use. The goal is to have streets 85 percent occupied.
Bushor and Wright, who were against the higher rates from the beginning, are hoping to roll back several of the recent changes.
At Monday's council meeting, Bushor succeed in tacking on an amendment to the fiscal year 2017 budget stating that the council has concerns about increased parking fees. Seven of the 12 councilors voted for it.
Wright is primarily concerned about residents who pay high property taxes and already feel like they're getting priced out of Burlington. One of his constituents, Greg Roy, staged a one-man boycott after the city raised rates and extended hours. Once a regular at city council meetings, the New North End retiree stopped coming because he objected to having to pay to park near Burlington City Hall. Civic engagement, Roy reasoned, should be free.
Bushor is focused on a related concern — that parking expenses will discourage people from frequenting downtown businesses. "We're not an island," she noted. "We have competing communities trying to attract the same customers."
David Melincoff, the proprietor of Sweetwaters, worries about the impact on his Church Street restaurant. Tourists, who tend to be less price-sensitive, don't seem to mind. But Melincoff said that locals — on whom he depends during the colder months — often tell him that the new parking rates make them less inclined to come out.
"When it's zero degrees out, it's hard enough to get people downtown," he said. "It's just one more obstacle." He suggested that the city calibrate parking prices seasonally — something that Chapin said is under consideration.
Some restaurant employees aren't happy, either. "It hasn't improved anything," said Abbie McGuire, a manager at the Gryphon on Main Street, as she cleaned wine glasses behind the bar. "It's just made it a lot more expensive."
Weinberger pointed out that the rooms and meals tax revenue coming from downtown businesses has increased since the parking changes took effect, which suggests that more expensive parking hasn't deterred visitors. In his view, raising parking rates, which apply to out-of-towners as well as Burlington residents, is preferable to higher property taxes — a burden that would fall entirely on residents.
While the mayor and his parking gurus may not agree with Bushor, they are not deaf to the complaints coming from businesses. Kelly Devine, executive director of the Burlington Business Association, said she's heard plenty of positive feedback but confirmed that downtown restaurants "are asking that the 10 p.m. policy be reevaluated."
"We may find that the best solution is to scale that back," she said. The parking coalition may also propose delaying the morning enforcement, which currently starts at 8 a.m.
DPW staffers are still collecting traffic and revenue data and will report their findings at the two-year mark this fall. But from what they've seen so far, the hours between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. are the busiest. For that reason, Bushor is proposing that the city stop charging at 7 p.m.
At least one change has been popular — a third of the meters now accept credit cards in addition to coins, and people can use an app to pay at any of the 1,200 downtown meters. According to DPW data, people paid via smartphones 13,517 times in May — which amounted to 15 percent of the revenue collected from meters that month.
"I feel like I'm being gouged," said a man from Charlotte, who landed a spot on St. Paul Street last Wednesday a little after 6 p.m. "The only good thing is, they have this app," he said, before rushing off to meet his wife for their anniversary dinner.
As part of its data collection, DPW is counting parked cars on Sundays, an exercise that is showing a trend already evident to many people: There are "significant parking pressures on Sunday afternoons and evenings," Spencer said.
Devine added that they plan to collect more data before making a recommendation. But, she said, "if we find that by noontime on Sunday all of the parking is completely full in the downtown, that means we need to take a look at that policy."
Weinberger's response: "I think we have to consider Sunday parking [fees], but people shouldn't rush to judgment about what that means."
Activating the meters on Sundays from noon to 8 p.m. in the downtown core would bring in roughly $137,000, according to the city's estimate.
The idea doesn't sit well with many people who consider free Sunday parking sacred.
"Oh, my god," said Melincoff, when told about the possibility.
Marie Morton, administrative assistant at the green-steepled First Baptist Church on St. Paul Street, said it could "really impact the churches" and, in particular, the older congregants. Morton noted that First Baptist relies on an agreement with the city that allows it to use a nearby parking garage.
Even councilors who support the expanded enforcement say they'll push back against Sunday parking fees. But they'll face a conundrum when they do: The council doesn't actually control parking policy. Those decisions are up to the Public Works Commission, an independent board of volunteers appointed by the council to oversee the department.
Both Bushor and Wright want to change the city charter to give the council direct control over parking enforcement. Until then, they'll have to rely on public opposition to get their point across.
The parking coalition is aware of what of it's up against.
"It is really important for people to pay for the parking they use to keep the system solvent," said Devine, of the business association. But, she also noted, "It's really hard to take away something that's free."