Parking supply, demand debated

Lot owners and managers say they and consumers will be hurt by a hike.

Santa might find bicycles and bus passes topping wish lists from Bainbridge Islanders this year.

With daily parking lot fees set to crack the $10 mark in 2005 if a city resolution passes, some commuters are pondering ways to cut costs. Some might drop the morning stop at the espresso stand, while others may arrange a carpool with friends.

Ferry commuter Rebecca Clark has a more drastic approach to the parking pinch.

“I’ll stop working in Seattle,” she said as she stuffed $6 in a commercial lot near Winslow Ravine. “I’ll just quit.”

Clark, a nurse at Swedish Hospital in Seattle, already spends $260 a month on gas, parking, ferry and taxi fares.

“I’m already maxed out,” the Poulsbo resident said. “The increase will put the commute right out of the ballpark. I’ll look for work in Silverdale.”

The Bainbridge Island City Council has expressed unified support for a measure that would increase the daily rate at the city-owned lot near the ferry terminal from $7.25 to $10. The measure would also boost the tax on commercial lots from 12 percent to 24 percent.

Revenues generated in 2005 from lot fees and taxes would help fund non-motorized transportation improvements and road maintenance projects.

It’s unclear how much commercial lots will charge customers if the increase is enacted, but at least one industry consultant has predicted commuters will bear all additional costs. Councilman Bob Scales, who proposed the measure, estimated a commercial lot charging $8 would likely increase the daily rate to $11.

Many lot owners have seen use decline over the years and fear that a rate increase could scare off customers.

“Owners are ultimately going to lose,” said Bob Duprie, a manager for Diamond Parking Services. “Last time Bainbridge increased their tax, in 1999, it took customers away. Whatever happened to the concept of price and demand? When lots are full, you increase rates.”

But lots aren’t full, he said, pointing to the empty spots at Diamond’s lot next to the Winslow ravine. On Monday at noon, despite a Seahawks game in Seattle that evening, the 174-car lot was short about 54 cars.

“That’s depressing,” he said.

But Councilman Nezam Tooloee surmises the city lot’s increase to $10 will make it the most expensive in town, sending customers to the commercial lots.

“By substantially increasing our price, it makes your product much more competitive,” he said to commercial parking representatives at a recent council meeting. Tooloee calculated that an $8 rate plus the additional 12 percent tax increase would amount to less than $9.

“It sounds like we’ll be sending business your way,” he said.

Councilors initially expected to increase revenues by $380,000 with the higher rates and taxes. Now they foresee a drop in lot use, decreasing their expected draw to just under $300,000.

“If you look at the vacancies and then you look at the rates, in a market economy, I’m afraid the revenue projections are really exaggerated,” said Councilwoman Christine Rolfes.

Councilors still support the measure, calling it a boon for bike lane, trail, sidewalk and road projects. They also predict the tax and rate increases will encourage alternative forms of transportation, decongesting roads and clearing air.

Scales said the increases are overdue.

“We haven’t raised our rates in the last five years, while other (city) services have gone up,” he said. “That doesn’t make sense.”

Budget Manager Ralph Eells estimates the city lost about $1.25 million in revenues after 1999’s Initiative 695, which set automobile tab fees at a flat $30. Eells said the city took another financial hit in 2001 with the approval of Initiative 747 and its cap on the growth of property taxes.

“The constraints on the city are large and growing,” he said.

In addition to the rate and tax increases, Rolfes suggested the city open 10 underused spots at the police station to monthly leasers, generating almost $12,000 per year for transportation projects.

Councilors said they understand the increases will be unpopular with some, framing the measure as a tax-reducing revenue generator.

The council passed an ordinance in 1999 allowing commercial lot taxes to be set as high as 30 percent. But the rate has never reached that level, topping out at 12 percent.

Councilwoman Debbie Vancil said the seeming increase from 12 percent to 24 percent is actually a 6 percent decrease from the untapped 30 percent cap.

“What we’re proposing now is to cut taxes and raise revenue,” she said.

Duprie said Vancil’s comment is doublespeak.

“I couldn’t believe that when I heard it,” he said. “It’s absurd. I laughed.”

Duprie said he’s not the only one laughing. He says customers are chuckling as they devise crafty ways to both avoid paying the growing parking lot rates.

“The general public is laughing,” he said. “Everybody knows on weekends and evenings that on the city lot, the city doesn’t check if people paid. They don’t enforce their rules. People are going to find other ways.

“For our lots and the city’s, it’s going to be lost opportunity all around us.”

Island businesses are also bracing for a spill-over of drivers looking to hide their cars in spots without parking rates.

“It’s like a sponge,” said Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce Director Kevin Dwyer. “When you squeeze here, water comes out over there.”

Drivers regularly drop cars off at the Safeway parking lot and ride their bikes to the ferry, said assistant store manager Brad Marler.

“I saw it happen right as I was getting out of my car today at 7 a.m.,” he said. “Someone pulled their bike out and rode down to the ferry.”

He expects the number of commuters unwilling to pay parking fees will increase after the hike.

“It can only get worse,” he said. “It’s frustrating for our customers who have to park down by the gas station.”

Cris Beattie, director of the Bainbridge Island Downtown Association, said the parking lot rate increases will have to come with stepped up parking enforcement on Winslow streets.

“Right now, enforcement is sporatic,” she said. “Places like Town & Country and their lot will bear the brunt if the fees increase. Better enforcement has to happen in tandem with the increases.”

Police Chief Matt Haney said the city’s lone parking enforcement officer will get help in 2005. He is in the process of hiring an additional full-time parking cop to meet increasing needs.

Commuter Linda Mallin is also hoping for a boost in public transportation alongside the rate increases.

“The buses are already so overcrowded,” she said after parking her car at the Diamond lot adjacent to the ferry terminal. “They’ll need more runs and more stops around the island.”

But Mallin speaks as an observer. While making use of downtown’s commercial lots, she is protected from whatever increases the future holds – her employer covers her parking costs.

“Either way, I won’t be crying when they raise the rates,” she said as she strolled to work.

Dana Berg, president of the Squeaky Wheels bike advocacy group, said commuters will grumble at first but change their habits for the better.

“Changing habits is really hard,” she said. “But people did it before, when the ferry rates went up, when gas and parking went up. They used Kitsap Transit, they biked and they loved it. It’s painful at first, but the pocketbook always makes big changes.”

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