Traverse City News and Events

TC Eyeing Higher, Fluctuating Parking Rates Based On Demand

By Beth Milligan | Sept. 14, 2020

Representatives from the Traverse City Downtown Development Authority (DDA) – which manages the city’s parking system – will appear before city commissioners tonight (Monday) to pitch a different approach to parking. The idea in a nutshell: move away from fixed rates and a “one-size-fits-all” approach to parking and instead charge based on demand, including higher rates for premium spots and peak times of year.

Moving to the new system will be a “paradigm shift” for Traverse City, according to Parking Director Nicole VanNess – one the DDA has been eyeing since 2017, when a consulting firm evaluated the city’s entire parking and transportation system. The study recommended charging more for peak parking spaces in Traverse City – such as those along the main blocks of Front Street – and raising or lowering rates throughout the year depending on seasonal demand.

The new “managed system” approach to parking would establish a range of pricing – such as a base price of $1/hour for metered and garage spaces – that could increase to a maximum of $2.50/hour in the summer, depending on the location. By having a price range that is preapproved by commissioners, DDA staff could make seasonal rate adjustments based on demand without having to return for commission approval each time they want to change prices – as they do now, according to VanNess.

Under the new system, garage and surface parking permits would be separated out; garage permit holders could no longer park in surface lots. Electric vehicle owners, who have been allowed to park in the city for free since 2007 – when such cars were significantly more rare – would be required to start paying for parking. A current city policy that provides a discount for paying parking tickets on the same day would be eliminated. Parking rates would be highest in the core part of downtown, but lower on the city’s outskirts – encouraging drivers who are price-conscious to park further away and walk, better distributing parking throughout the entire system. Most rates and fees – such as for meter bagging, permit parking, and violations – would increase under the proposed new system.

VanNess notes that in order to be self-sustaining, the parking system must generate enough revenue to not only cover maintenance costs but to invest in new projects. Those could include things like parking decks, but also “multi-modal transportation” options that relieve parking demand downtown. “Along with parking rates, we will implement the best management practices for offering pedestrian, bicycle and transit options as an alternative to parking,” says VanNess. “This will not be an easy or painless task. This is a complete shift from how we have always done parking to managing parking as a systems approach.”

While many communities across the country have shifted to demand-based parking systems – and also charge higher parking rates than Traverse City– VanNess knows that overhauling the system locally won’t be easy or even well-received. She has identified several potential challenges ahead, including the increased costs to downtown employees and the need to clearly communicate fluctuating rates to drivers. There is also the potential for parking spillover into neighborhoods – though the city recently passed a residential parking program to try and address that issue – and potential pushback from businesses.

“Businesses may hear that patrons are choosing other shopping areas that provide free parking, but over time merchants should see a positive turn as there are more available spaces, increased use of the spaces, and shorter parking durations,” VanNess says. The parking director also notes that city leaders must be realistic about the limitations and costs of parking and work to balance the needs of all user groups. “With the limited real estate in the downtown district, we have to be wise about how we achieve and promote smart growth, ” she says.

Several city commissioners have expressed initial support for the parking system shift. Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers, who sits on the DDA board, has spoken out frequently at recent meetings about the need to stop debating parking changes and instead move forward with enacting them. Mayor Pro Tem Amy Shamroe says she’s heard the complaints from some residents that parking is too expensive in the city or even should be available for free – and that current rates keep visitors out of downtown – but she disagrees with those arguments.

“I remember when I was a kid, when we had free parking and downtown was not thriving,” she says. “Our downtown today is thriving, especially if you compare it to 20 years ago. We have a much better business community, we have fewer vacancies. So show me the problem; show me the people who aren’t showing up. This idea that people don’t come downtown because they have to pay for parking doesn’t appear to be borne out.”

Commissioner Christie Minervini agrees. “It has everything to do with demand,” she says. “You can look at the mall right now with, all those retailers and all of that empty space out there – and it’s free parking. If you want to put your car closest to where you want to be, there’s going to be a premium attached to that. I don’t think that’s unreasonable.”

City commissioners will discuss the parking system change and give feedback tonight, with no vote expected. The DDA board will next take up the issue at their Friday meeting. A final proposal is slated to come back to city commissioners for approval on October 5. If adopted by city commissioners, parking system changes would be phased in on a rolling basis between October and January, according to VanNess.

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