Tuesday, February 09, 2010

At a medium pace

Nobody likes a parking meter. In fact, the parking meter could very well be one of the most loathed inhabitants of the urban jungle, second only to the overzealous parking cop. Business owners say they scare customers away to the free fields of parking at nearby shopping plazas. And the customers often view them as yet another tithe they are forced to pay on their way to being fleeced by a tourist trap.

Indeed, parking meters stir all kinds of ire among the public. Some see damaging them as a suitable way to strike out against a taxing authority –or authority in general. Others see them as a roadside treasure trove to be smashed, bashed, hacked, sawed or otherwise defiled in a manner to rob the bevy of quarters. These are the types of things many parking authorities deal with in municipalities that have their motorists socialized into paying for their spot on the street.

Of course, Saratoga Springs is not one of those municipalities. The Spa City pulled out its meters decades ago in an attempt to make the downtown area more alluring. Ever since, parking has been a right for residents and visitors alike. Not a privilege that can be taxed, but an inalienable right.

This notion is one the City Council should understand as it moves forward with a plan to implement paid parking. Given the almost-certain-to-grow $1.35 million budget deficit, paid parking is pretty much imminent. Layoffs didn’t seem to save much money and the city’s stalled negotiations with the unions don’t appear to be yielding any forthcoming savings.

But if it’s between raising property taxes and billing the city’s visitors, most residents would choose the latter. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a happy medium between implementing paid parking and keeping other spaces free for the taking.

For example, the easiest plan to start charging for spaces is to put barricades up at all the two municipally-owned parking decks. Generally speaking, motorists almost assume they’re going to pay for a spot in such lots. After all, there needs to be some revenue coming in to care for them in the event their concrete starts crumbling.

Moreover, the parking garages shield vehicles from the elements, which can be a real bonus in bad weather. Certainly, there will be some people pissed off by paid parking no matter how it is implemented; count downtown workers among this group. However, charging for the municipal decks while leaving the rest of the business district alone would be one way of striking a happy medium with ardent paid parking opponents, such as the Downtown Business Association.

Will this bring in enough revenue to balance the city budget? Probably not. And as Albany has demonstrated, paid parking can be a bit of a disaster when the wrong folks are enforcing it. The last think Saratoga Springs needs is a new entitlement program that allows the well-connected to flout the law.

But asking people to pay for the garages is a start, and not one that’s a hard-and-fast screwing like nailing in meters in front of every business downtown. Let’s call it a trial balloon. On the plus side, maybe paid parking will convince a few of the city’s laziest commuters to walk a few blocks to work instead of hopping into the car.

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