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Getting There: Process of changing downtown parking to dynamic, tiered system moves forward

Time on a downtown Spokane parking meter expired ticks down for an Audi parked on Sprague Avenue. The city is working to implement changes to its downtown parking system. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Feed a meter all day at a series of two-hour downtown Spokane on-street parking spots, and it will cost you $13.20.

Sit in the spot all day and skip paying for it altogether, and an expired meter citation will cost you $15.

That $1.80 difference is just one of a number of examples of what’s wrong with parking in downtown Spokane.

Or so Julie Dixon, whose company, Dixon Resources Unlimited, is implementing the findings of $240,000 parking study done by another firm, told a group of City Council members gathered for a workshop in the basement of City Hall on Thursday morning.

For one thing, Dixon said, that $1.80 difference is too low to “encourage compliance.”

For another thing, she said, the cost of a parking violation in Spokane is “substantially low” compared to other cities, including Seattle and Portland, where the cost of an expired meter is $44.

And higher fines for violations will pay dividends, she said. It won’t just “encourage compliance.”

When combined with other tweaks to the system, the city could fund a high-tech downtown parking system that would be dynamically managed and more seamlessly integrated.

A tiered system of value and premium spots would allow the city to charge as much as $5 an hour for a highly desirable spot right in front of Nordstrom’s and as little as 50 cents an hour at the periphery of downtown.

Parking enforcement officers would be equipped with license plate recognition technology that would help them more easily identify repeat offenders.

Managers of the parking system would be able to adjust hourly rates as often as every hour, though Dixon cautioned that the city would want to do so only every few months or more to prevent confusion.

Drivers could view where they might find an open parking space instead of blindly circling for a spot.

The city could offer deals, like free 15-minute parking, in certain zones or conduct pilot studies of how people respond to certain rates at more or less the touch of a button.

“Everyone thinks this is about a money grab, and it’s not,” Dixon said of her admonitions that the city start pricing its parking at “the market rate.”

Instead, she said, the proposed changes are about creating a “sustainable” and efficient system.

At the heart of such a system, she said, is trying to achieve 85% occupancy. When that ratio is achieved, Dixon said, drivers can always find a spot nearby, businesses can rest assured their customers will have somewhere to park and the city can get a good return on its investment in the parking system.

“If you’re pricing the spaces correctly,” she said, “you’ll always have spots available.”

But as City Council President Breean Beggs pointed out, the city doesn’t control the pricing on all of the spots downtown. Private operators control downtown’s numerous off-street lots, Beggs said, and they have vowed to raise their rates if the city raises its rates.

So if the city moves too rashly, Beggs expressed concern it will alienate drivers by raising costs everywhere without convincing the public of the value of the changes. To prevent that, he pushed for a focus on appropriate “sequencing” that would focus first on improving enforcement by adopting the license plate recognition technology and working with off-street lots to encourage their participation. Only then, he said, should the city move forward on raising costs in premium spots.

The goal, he said, would be to show people that “your rates are going to go up because your experience is going up.”

To that end, he floated the idea of creating a new system he called “Park Spokane.”

Acknowledging that you can’t just “force those (off-street) lots to join such a system,” Park Spokane would incorporate those lots into the city’s on-street system not only by boosting enforcement, technology and dynamic pricing at metered spots but also by providing a smartphone-enabled system of wayfinding to private surface lots.

That “integrated system,” he said after the workshop, would make it easier for drivers to know where surface lots are and would give those lot owners a reason to play ball with the city on pricing. It would also be “good for business” by making it easier for drivers who are considering coming to downtown to shop, eat or otherwise spend their time.

“I think the promise of that is huge,” he said.

Beggs wasn’t the only councilmember to offer feedback during Dixon’s presentation.

Councilman Michael Cathcart raised the issue of how raising rates downtown will affect neighborhoods nearby that will be accessible by the coming bus rapid transit City Line. Councilwoman Lori Kinnear said it’s already happening in Peaceful Valley and Browne’s Addition.

“And the folks that live there are already clamoring for enforcement,” Kinnear said.

Those issues, Dixon said, should get the city thinking about how it might alter parking rules in residential neighborhoods. And she acknowledged that any changes to the city’s parking system, whether they occur downtown or outside it, are likely to ruffle the feathers of the parking public.

“Trust me, we’ll hear feedback,” Dixon said. “Change can be tough, but we have to ride it out.”

In an effort to get people on board with changes, Dixon said, “It’s really important when we talk about parking to be transparent.”

Her group, in concert with the city, has been working to do that with a series of public sessions that have taken place over the past six months. And next month, the city will give people a chance to interact with some of the new parking technology that’s on the short list for possible implementation.

“We’re calling it a petting zoo,” said Kirstin Davis, communications manager for the city’s neighborhood and business services departments, of the events set for March 4-6 in the lobby of City Hall and for the atrium of River Park Square for March 7-8.

Ultimately, changes to the city’s parking system will require updating the city’s municipal code. In her presentation, Dixon said that update should involve the City Council establishing premium and value zones, setting minimum and maximum rates and adopting an occupancy target of 75% to 85%. And it will also grant city staff the authority to change rates based on data to achieve those targets.

Beggs said he is open to Dixon’s proposals, though he also said he wants to be sure the City Council stays “accountable to voters” before making major pricing changes or handing decision-making power to staff.

“Let’s not get it off our plate,” he said, “until we really figure it out.”

Work to watch for

Westbound Mission Avenue between Upriver Drive and Perry Street will be closed from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Tuesday for an emergency BNSF repair. A detour will be in place at Greene Street.

Grandview Avenue between Garden Springs Road and 18th Avenue will be until Friday for Eco Excavating work.

The Perry Street and Indiana Avenue intersection will have lane shifts until Friday for CenturyLink work.

Through March 6, northbound Howard Street will have a lane shift between Cataldo and Boone avenues, and Cataldo will be completely closed between Howard and Washington streets.

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