By Shawn Regan
HAVERHILL — City officials laid the groundwork last night for increasing the fee and times that drivers pay to park downtown.
The city’s paid parking consultant Jason Schreiber of Nelson/Nygaard said the five-month-old program has gotten off to a good start for the most part, but that revenue collections for the private company running the program are coming up short. He also said allowing free street parking in the morning and afternoon has prevented the program from opening as many prime parking spots near restaurants and other businesses as officials envisioned.
Haverhill received an up-front payment from SP Plus Municipal Services based on the paid program generating $250,000 by the end of this month and $400,000 by the end of its first year. Collections so far, however, stand at $175,000 and are projected to only reach $275,000 by the end of the first year, Schreiber said.
If the city doesn’t hit the benchmarks, it will get less money from SP Plus over the course of its 3-year contract with the company, officials said.
Schreiber said the program could still hit the benchmarks by raising the parking fee from 50 cents an hour to 75 cents or $1 an hour. He also recommends starting the paid program earlier — at 10 a.m. rather than 3 p.m. — on the downtown’s main streets.
Currently, street parking is free and limited to two hours from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Washington, Essex, Granite and Wingate streets. Drivers pay 50 cents per hour from 3 to 8 p.m. on those streets.
In city lots and the Merrimack Street garage, drivers pay 50 cents per hour to park or purchase $15-per-month permits reserved for people who live or work downtown. The paid program is Monday through Friday.
Schreiber recommends raising the cost of lot and garage permits to $30 per month or even $50 per month for the busy Wingate Street lot. He also suggested extending paid parking to 9 p.m. and making street parking and nighttime more expensive that lot parking and daytime parking.
Overall, Schreiber said the program is working as designed and that more people are parking downtown now than before the city started charging Aug. 1. However, he said too many people are using prime spaces on the street because it is free during times when it costs to park in the lots. Increasing the fee for street parking, he said, will lead to more turnover of street spaces that are most convenient for customers of restaurants, shops and other businesses.
The paid program is designed to dissuade long-term parking by people such as commuters who ride the train and those who live and work downtown from parking for hours at a time in the heart of the business district. Instead, the city wants them to park on peripheral roadways such as Bailey Boulevard where parking is free.
“If we fix the system to improve prime space availability, we will bring in more revenue,” Schreiber said. “Compared to other communities who have started paid parking, you are doing extremely well because your goals are improving availability of spaces, not money. And because you have been making changes based on feedback.”
Several councilors said they are leery of hiking parking fees so soon into the program.
“I’m in downtown daily and it seems to be working based on what I see and the comments I hear,” said Councilor Michael McGonagle, who owns a staffing company on Merrimack Street. “I’ll resist changes based on making more money because this was never supposed to be about revenue.”
Other councilors said they need to be open to changes and continue to tweak the program.
“We have to be flexible and let the mayor and parking commission makes changes, even if price increases are uncomfortable to talk about,” Councilor William Ryan said.
Schreiber said the program has made parking much more available in downtown’s public lots, the city garage on Merrimack Street and the new MVRTA garage in Railroad Square. In the MVRTA garage, for instance, he said use of the facility has increased from less than 30 percent before paid parking to more than 50 percent now.
Public Works Director Michael Stankovich, who is the city’s point man on paid parking, said he and Mayor James Fiorentini will consider Schreiber’s recommendations and propose changes for the council to consider at an upcoming meeting.
Stankovich said money from the program has been used to sweep and clean the Merrimack Street garage more often and to install better lighting and signs throughout downtown about parking rules.