PORTLAND — City Councilors on Monday asked staff for more information about alternatives to a proposed 40 percent hike in public parking garage hourly fees.
The current budget proposal includes a 40 percent rate hike for hourly parking in city-owned parking garages on Spring and Elm streets. The fee would increase from $1.25 an hour to $1.75.
Councilors Ed Suslovic and John Anton asked parking department staff at a budget workshop to detail the possibility of reinstating a first-hour free policy in advance of the council’s final vote on the city budget, slated for May 21.
Councilor David Marshall said he intends to propose an amendment to reduce the hike to 25 cents, or 20 percent, or to keep the cost unchanged at $1.25.
The proposed rate hike has been criticized by some business owners and advocates of the downtown, who fear that the price increase would discourage people from coming downtown and to the Old Port to shop and dine.
“We think it’s not good economic policy,” Jan Beitzer, the director of Portland’s Downtown District, said. Parking should be used as an economic development tool by the city rather than purely a revenue capturing one, she said.
The proposed hike is meant to make the city’s parking garages competitive with private garages around the city, which charge an average of $2.50 an hour, parking manager John Peverada said.
“All we’re trying to do is come up to the bottom of the pack,” he said in an interview last week. Even with an increase in the hourly rate, he said, “the city of Portland is giving a great discount on your parking.”
Regardless of what the rate is, customers can park for free if businesses participate in the Portland Downtown District’s Park & Shop program, Peverada noted.
About 50 shops, restaurants, and banks participate in that program, in which downtown establishments can buy discounted parking stamps to give to customers for up to two hours of parking in any public or private garage in the city.
With a first-hour free policy, the city would have to raise its rates in the Spring and Elm street garages to $3 an hour to make the same revenue projected under the current $1.25 to $1.75 an hour proposal, Peverada said Monday.
The city abandoned a first-hour free policy in its garages in 2010, he said.
At $3 an hour, with the first hour free, it would cost drivers $3 to park for two hours and $6 to park for three hours. Under the current proposal, it would cost $3.50 to park for two hours and $5.25 to park for three hours.
“I think (a first-hour free policy) is a better marketing approach if it’s revenue neutral,” Anton said, adding that he is comfortable with the currently proposed 40 percent hike.
Councilor Cheryl Leeman argued that $3 an hour would be too much for drivers, saying it would cost “an arm and a leg” to park in a garage.
“I don’t want to pay $3 an hour, and I don’t think any member of the public wants to either,” she said.