It isn’t difficult to grasp the reasoning behind Mayor Greg Ballard’s proposal to privatize the city’s parking operations. The $4 million to $8 million a year in additional revenue an outside operator would pour into the city’s depleted coffers would certainly come in handy for improving streets, sidewalks and alleys in the targeted areas of Broad Ripple and downtown.
But that extra revenue would be squeezed out of drivers by doubling or tripling parking fees, and the steep increases might trigger the unintended consequence of eroding hard-fought gains in downtown redevelopment.
Given the pressures the city is under to find revenue, it would be too much to ask Ballard to reconsider the proposal altogether. But phasing in steep fee increases should be on the table.
The city unveiled the proposals last week after issuing a request for qualifications in February. Indianapolis wants a private operator to take over all 3,600 metered parking spaces in downtown and Broad Ripple and several downtown garages.
City leaders this week expect to recommend one of seven finalists chosen from an initial list of 16. The City-County Council could take up the proposal as soon as Aug. 23.
Hourly parking rates at meters would climb from 75 cents to $1.50, and downtown metered parking would end at 9 p.m. instead of 6 p.m.
The city points out that parking fees haven’t been raised since 1975. That’s a legitimate argument, one running along the lines of Gov. Mitch Daniels’ contention when he leased the Indiana Toll Road four years ago that tolls hadn’t been raised in two decades.
The proposal also has merit because parking rates are cheap here compared to other cities.
But the prospect of shelling out more quarters could drive away paying customers. Swiping a credit card in one of the new proposed electronic meters might be an easier psychological leap than digging deeper into pockets for more change, but there’s no guarantee that $1.50 for just one hour will find acceptance.
Simon Property Group Inc. understood this dynamic when it opened Circle Centre mall in 1995. The downtown mall offered the first three hours of parking for just $1. The price is now $1.50 for the first three hours, but it’s still a bargain and continues to blunt some of the hesitation shoppers harbor about making the trek.
A phase-in would give both consumers and businesses time to absorb the mental shock of the increases and delay the greatest impacts until the economy improves.
Meters could still be fed later in the day, as the city proposes, which should help the city and retailers accomplish the goal of creating more turnover in the parking spaces. More customers means more revenue for shopkeepers.
As it is, too many people hog spaces for hours at a time instead of using a garage or parking lot.
Whatever Ballard decides, maintaining downtown’s appeal should be the primary goal. Shiny appearances to the contrary, downtown still needs coddling.•
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