May 21, 2015: Parking for neighborhood benefits

May 21, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Can you remember the last time you intended to stop at Winters Hardware for that household repair need, couldn’t find a parking space, and put it off until “tomorrow”?  But, as Annie so correctly notes, “tomorrow is always a day away.”

Or the time you planned to stop at Arams for a bite to eat, didn’t see a parking spot, and decided “what the heck” and kept on driving?

Belmont’s Board of Selectmen recently took action to address parking issues in and around Belmont Center.  The decisions came as part of the Belmont Center reconstruction that will be progressing over the next six months.

Legislation now pending in the Massachusetts state legislature would ensure that communities like Belmont can address parking issues throughout the town, to the benefit of all, including specifically the affected neighborhoods.

Co-sponsored by, amongst others, both State Senator Will Brownsberger and State Representative Dave Rogers, who represent Belmont on Capitol Hill, the legislation is known as PARC (Parking Advancements for the Revitalization of Communities).  The legislation creates three primary tools for a community, and could provide significant benefits to towns like Belmont.

First, the legislation authorizes the creation of “Parking Benefit Districts.”  Such a district is a geographically defined area of the town in which parking revenues collected there are dedicated to improvements in that area.  The legislation authorizes, but does not require, a community like Belmont to create such districts.  Should Belmont choose to do so, however, it could raise and target funding for specific areas such as East Belmont Street, Cushing Square, Belmont’s Central Square, or elsewhere.

Second, the legislation makes clear that parking fees are not limited by existing law that can be construed to cap fees at the level of “necessary expenses incurred” for acquiring and installing parking meters and regulating parking activities.  Instead, parking revenue could be used, also, for “transportation improvements including but not limited to the operation of mass transit and facilities for biking and walking.”  Sidewalk repair falls within this language.

Finally, the legislation explicitly allows a community such as Belmont to utilize variable, or demand-based, pricing and the latest technologies to implement such pricing.  Just as Belmont Light can choose to price electricity higher at times of peak use, in other words, so, too, could Belmont price its parking.

The real trick with public parking, including on-street parking, is to get the price right.  According to Donald Shoup, a national expert on municipal parking who spoke recently at a parking seminar for local Massachusetts officials, “the right price for curb parking is the lowest price that keeps a few spaces available to allow convenient access.” “If no curb spaces are available,” Shoup says, “reducing their price cannot attract more customers, just as reducing the price of anything else in short supply cannot increase its sales.”

“Short-term parkers,” Shoup notes, “are less sensitive to the price of parking than to the time it takes to find a vacant space. . .[C]harging enough to create a few curb vacancies can attract customers who would rather pay for parking than not be able to find it.”

Being able to use any resulting revenue for the benefit of the surrounding neighborhood, whether those improvements involve lighting upgrades or sidewalk repair, is an added plus.

The PARC legislation now pending before the Massachusetts legislature would not mandate that a community such as Belmont do anything.  What the legislation would do is to provide Belmont officials additional tools, should they choose to use them, to address multiple problems (e.g., business center revitalization, parking, sidewalk repair) at the same time.

The legislation deserves Belmont’s support.

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