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Downtown parking system needs more revenue

Karen Sorensen | 8/20/2014, 8:32 p.m.
The city of Joliet's losing money on downtown parking, but there are several fixes -- some pricy, some not -- ...
Simple changes, such as making meter reader routes "unpredictable" and allowing drivers to pay with "smart cards," could increase Joliet's parking income, a consultant said.

The city of Joliet's losing money on downtown parking, but there are several fixes -- some pricy, some not -- that could generate funds and cover the costs of such things as parking deck maintenance, a consultant told the Joliet City Council this week.

Right now, the cost of operating downtown parking decks and enforcing downtown parking meters costs $1.41 million annually, but the city collects only $1.37 million through parking fees and fines, said David Burr, a senior parking planner with Rich & Associates.

The $37,786 deficit could easily be covered by increasing the cost of permit parking from $1 a day to $1.25, which is what Lockport, New Lenox and Mokena are already charging. That would generate $50,000 to $60,000 in new income, Burr said.

Were the city to collect more than 40 percent of the fines it's owed from parking tickets, another $70,000 to $140,000 could be added to the coffers, he said.

"That's without writing one more ticket than you're writing today," Burr said.

However, changes in enforcement would the city to cite more violators and generate more ticket fines, he said.

For example, people who frequently park downtown know the patterns of the meter readers and thus know how long they can park without feeding the meter before they run the risk of being caught, he said. Creating "unpredictable" routes for the readers would make the system harder to beat, he said.

Others will stay at the same spot for long periods of time and just keep feeding the meters because the readers do not keep track of whether the same car has been parked at a given spot for longer than the allotted time. That's a violation that should be ticketed, Burr said.

Conversely, meter readers need to be aware of frequent violators and treat them differently than "innocent" offenders who don't come downtown often and may unintentionally run out of time on their meter, he said. "Courtesy" tickets that don't include a fine for first-time offenders should be an option, he said.

Ideally, the city's parking system should not only pay for itself but also generate enough money to pay for maintenance and improvements, Burr said.

That's certainly not been the case with the downtown parking decks at 110 N. Ottawa St. and 11 E. Clinton St., which Burr said are showing both structural and esthetic problems -- cracks in walls and posts, exposed reinforcement bars where concrete has been knocked out, peeling paint. A consultant's review of the decks would cost about $25,000, he said.

And city signage directing people to the decks leaves much to be desired, he said. He and an associate drove around downtown three times before noticing the parking signs, which were mixed in with a variety of other signage or hidden behind trees, he said.

Other changes Burr suggest city officials consider include:

Replace existing meters with models that can be fed with "pre-paid smart cards," providing an option to paying with quarters;

Mark each meter with a sign visible from the street that says how long the user can park there -- one hour, two hours and so on;

Extend the time parking decks are manned to 11 p.m. Some regular deck users deliberately wait until after the cashier leaves at 7 p.m. to retrieve their car, and thus are parking for free;

Create a Web page that allows parking permit holders to pay online rather than having to go to Joliet City Hall in person;

Eliminate meter enforcement on Saturday, which is unnecessary;

Invest in software that allows meter readers to differentiate between frequent scofflaws and first-time offenders;

Hire a security guard to start at 4:30 a.m. to reduce perceived and real safety fears of people who are early commuters;

Budget $50 per parking spot annually to fund improvements to decks and meters as needed;

Hire a sign consultant to create signage plans directing people to the parking decks and lots and guiding them once they're there.

Contact Karen Sorensen at Karen@TheTimesWeekly.com.