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City studies higher fines and fees for parking

Friday, January 17, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

Around 30 percent of Austin’s downtown traffic congestion can be attributed to drivers circling in search of a parking space. In order to solve that problem, Austin Transportation Department’s Parking Enterprise division has launched an effort to address the specific policies that are leading to worsening traffic and driving up carbon emissions in the process.

Parking Enterprise Manager Jason Redfern said the division is now at the conclusion of the first phase and moving into the second phase of updating those policies.

According to the Downtown Austin Parking Strategy, a 2017 study prepared by transportation consulting firm Nelson\Nygaard, cheap on-street parking is the chief culprit. The study found that cheap hourly rates encourage less parking turnover, with some people using prime on-street spaces all day long, and make people less willing to pay the higher rates of off-street parking.

In effect, the report claims that cheap rates entice people to circle around town in search of a parking spot at a good bargain while making it less likely they will find one.

Redfern told the Downtown Commission on Wednesday that “the premium up-front parking spaces that are easy access” have sat at around $1.20 an hour for three decades in contrast to the average hourly rate of a downtown off-street space of $3.65. With only 9 percent of downtown’s total parking capacity located on-street, Redfern said the department is looking to narrow the gap in average cost so that people don’t have such a strong incentive to park on-street.

The division began that process last October when City Council approved a citywide $2 hourly base rate and granted the department authority to adjust parking rates within a range of up to $5 per hour going forward. Combined, these changes comprise the first phase of parking updates.

For the second phase, the division is preparing to make maximum parking time limits more uniform across the city for the sake of predictability and based on the particular demand in an area.

As a whole, the division may be moving away from using time limits as a way to encourage turnover, focusing instead on adjusting parking rates over time relative to demand. During the second phase, the division will continue collecting data on its demand-based pricing strategy pilot to determine if the strategy is appropriate for certain neighborhoods.

The Downtown Austin Parking Strategy recommends a simple formula for demand-based pricing: lower the parking rate if fewer than 75 percent of spaces in a single block are occupied and raise it if more than 90 percent are taken; otherwise, make no changes. Theoretically, the variability ensures around 15 percent of on-street spots are available at all times.

In the third phase, the division will be studying an appropriate adjustment to its parking citation fines, which haven’t been adjusted in nearly two decades, to encourage more responsible parking behavior. With fines currently “super low,” Redfern said the basic need is to make sure it’s not cheaper to get a fine than to pay the parking rates.

Once the three phases are complete, Redfern said the division may add another phase depending on circumstances. Overall, he said, modernizing parking strategies is meant to reduce congestion and carbon emissions, ensure that people without their own private cars have access to curb space, and make sure the city’s abundant off-street parking stock is getting appropriate use.

The division has also drastically increased parking enforcement by using license plate reading technology that quickly registers whether a vehicle has overstayed its limit. To make enforcement even easier, Redfern said the division is exploring a payment system that links payment to license plate numbers to reduce the time spent checking window stickers.

In the future, Redfern assured commissioners that the department will be aiming to update parking rates and fees to at least keep up with the inflation index. Although the department increased parking rates last year, he noted, the current $2 hourly fee would be equal to 99 cents in 1990 once adjusted for inflation. Given the 1990 rate of $1, the actual value paid for parking is actually one cent less today than it was then, despite the city’s population growth.

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