Wednesday, December 10, 2008

D.C residents hoping to snatch a downtown parking space will have to bring plenty of change if some D.C. Council members have their way. Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, has proposed doubling the downtown parking-meter rate to $2 per hour, citing the city’s $131 million budget shortfall and social programs that could face cuts.

Mr. Graham proposed the price increase during a public round-table discussion on Monday. He had earlier sought to increase the rate to $1.50. Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, also supports the plan. By contrast, the average cost of parking downtown in a garage is $7 per hour.

The proposal would also require meter payment in the Central Business District on Saturdays, which is currently free. The District is home to approximately 17,000 metered parking spaces, with around 3,000 in the downtown area alone.

Mr. Graham said the current rate of $1 per hour is absurd.

“It’s a bargain-basement rate, and many cities have moved way beyond us on this,” he said.

Mr. Graham said that any way the city can garner more revenue must be explored. The council recently froze $46 million in spending to create a reserve fund for future budget problems.

“When it comes to the budget, you can either cut or you can find an increase, and there’s a lot of cutting going on,” he said.

Last year, the meters brought in almost $16 million, and Mr. Graham says his proposal would generate an additional $10 million annually in revenue. He said the excess funds would be diverted to social programs that are on the chopping block, such as housing projects and rent-supplement programs.

One such program would be the Home Purchase Assistance Program, which provides down payment and closing cost assistance for low-income residents looking to buy their first home. The program had $11 million of its budget moved into the reserve fund.

“Without the parking-meter revenue, we’re dead in the water,” said Rev. Jim Dickerson, founder and chairman of Manna Inc., which has worked closely with the first-time homebuyer program. The council has “got to have a much more strategic approach toward the budget cuts, and this is a step in the right direction,” he said.

Other city agencies and organizations support the idea of parking-meter fee increases - but only if they receive the benefits.

“Any additional revenue generated by increased meter rates, hours or days must continue to be directed to fund infrastructure improvements in the District,” said D.C. Department of Transportation spokeswoman Karina Hicks. Miss Hicks also said that extending the meter rates to Saturday would benefit major entertainment districts, such as H Street Northwest or the Penn Quarter, by allowing new consumers and visitors to take advantage of short-term parking.

“Seventy percent of vehicles that park on Saturdays in the Central Business District park all day. Arbitrary parking rates and arbitrary enforcement simply do not make sense,” she said.

The Downtown Business Improvement District, which has worked to revitalize commerce in the downtown area, said that they will support the measure if the funds are diverted to help relieve congestion.

“We support parking-meter raises in the context that the funds are used to make it easier for folks to drive downtown,” said Richard Bradley, executive director of BID.

Mr. Graham is expected to introduce the emergency measure at the council’s next legislative session on Dec. 16.

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