No Such Thing As Free Parking

Downtown parking changes approved by City Council stall at City Hall

Santa Fe’s pork chop shape and income disparity create a sort of conundrum for commuters.

Many of the jobs are concentrated on one end of town and most of the growth is concentrated on the other, meaning many residents have to get across town for work. And as the city has cut back on transit service, that has left many with no option but to drive—and spend money on parking as well as gas.

The mayor and City Council approved a one-year pilot program last November to provide workers earning less than $21 an hour with an extra discount on parking passes for downtown garages.

But more than six months after the vote to launch the one-year program, the city has yet to roll out the discounted permits.

City officials signaled concerns early on, noting the program could eat into the revenue of the city’s Parking Division. Other plans to potentially boost revenue (and unsnarl traffic) detailed in a lengthy multimodal transition plan councilors adopted last year also appear stalled (see “On the Struggle Bus,” May 10).

The discount parking program was meant to be fairly limited in scope—just 150 permits that would be sold on a first-come, first-serve basis to businesses that could then pass the permits on to qualifying employees. The program was meant to steer drivers to the city’s garages while also saving a bit of money for low-wage workers.

“We want to provide parking for the employees, particularly employees who come from the Southside of town and don’t have the luxury of getting to work any other way,” District 4 Councilor Amanda Chavez told the Quality of Life Committee in arguing for the program last fall.

Public Works Director Regina Wheeler cautioned that even this limited initiative would cost the city tens of thousands of dollars in lost parking revenue. Moreover, the city didn’t have 150 spaces to spare in its garages, Wheeler argued.

The initiative passed anyway but hasn’t gone anywhere.

Wheeler tells SFR the pilot project had largely been on hold while the city found a new Parking Division director. With a new director recently hired, the city will be looking at launching the program, she says.

Meanwhile, the city’s multimodal transition plan—approved by the council on the very same day as the parking pilot project—argues the city isn’t making the best use of the parking spaces it already has. Based on surveys and extensive study by outside consultants, the plan concludes the city has plenty of parking around downtown that’s underutilized but that the city has done a poor job of directing drivers to those spaces.

The city currently charges $2 an hour for on-street parking, for example.

Garages and lots aren’t much cheaper.

The city charges $2 an hour at the lot on Water Street, for example, and $1 for the first hour as well as $2 for each additional hour at garages around downtown.

The city’s multimodal transition plan argues these prices don’t provide much incentive for drivers to choose a garage over the street. That means drivers may reasonably opt to take the spot closest to their destination, regardless of whether they plan to stay there for just a few minutes or a few hours, the report says.

That can snarl traffic as other drivers cruise the streets looking for open spots, the report adds. Meanwhile, drivers don’t have much incentive to move vehicles from in front of downtown businesses that might want more turnover to accommodate customers who are only staying for shorter periods of time, like at restaurants or galleries.

It also makes for wasted space in some of the garages around town.

While the garage on Sandoval Street and the lot on Water Street fill up quickly, parking facilities at the convention center and Railyard often have empty spaces, the plan notes.

The plan calls for city officials in the short term to raise parking rates on the street to at least $1 above the hourly rate for the most expensive off-street option. The plan also suggests making it cheaper to park at the convention center in hopes more drivers will choose that underutilized option. And it suggests the city look to the ring of parking lots that encircle downtown but are often underused, such as those at the Legislature and the South Capitol transit station.

In the long term, the plan suggests the city adopt what’s called demand-based pricing to adjust prices based on the amount of available parking. Prices for curbside parking could rise, for example, if nearby garages still have plenty of space. The plan argues higher prices will encourage more turnover in on-street parking.

Not so fast.

“The city of Santa Fe is the city different,” says Wheeler.

While dynamic pricing or structuring parking rates to heavily incentivize the use of garages may be textbook in other cities, she says, “this administration is a little more gentle with fees.”

In the short term, the goal is to continue replacing the many broken parking meters across downtown (the city bought hundreds of new ones this year) and improve the ease of using downtown garages, Wheeler says.

The multimodal transition plan, she adds, was a long-term project. Even the city’s top official doesn’t seem to be on board with it, contending it doesn’t go far enough.

Pointing to the economic strain that car ownership can be for many families and the city’s own study showing transportation remains the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Santa Fe, Mayor Alan Webber voted against the plan when the council approved it last year.

“If we were to embrace all of the recommendations in this document, I don’t actually believe that needle will move in a significant way simply because we’re not being aggressive enough, bold enough or willing to take hard decisions to disincentive the automobile in favor of transit and bikes and pedestrian use,” he told the council Nov. 9.

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