If you’ve ever tried to park in downtown Austin, you’ve probably found yourself circling the streets a few times before finding a spot. The city is exploring changes to make more parking available during peak traffic time – but that could mean cutting back on free parking hours.
The idea behind these proposed changes is that how the city charges for parking drives the rate of turnover in those coveted street spaces. Right now, drivers must pay for downtown street spots from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Wednesday. Metered hours run until midnight Thursday through Sunday as more people head downtown. Robert Spillar, director of Austin’s Transportation Department, recently sent a memo to the Austin City Council that proposes extending metered hours to midnight on Wednesdays as well.
“Really, the goal is to encourage people to use parking garages," Spillar said. On-street spots should be used for short-term parking and then turned over to another driver, he said.
The proposed change may seem like a small piece of the parking puzzle, but it’s part of a larger plan that the city says will improve the driver experience. A 2015 study by the Austin Transportation Department found that downtown street parking is more than 85 percent full on Wednesday nights. Spillar said Wednesdays have essentially become part of the weekend. If the city charges for parking, drivers can expect higher rates of turnover, and that could mean more customers for nearby businesses.
Barring any other changes to parking fees, Spillar said, extending metered hours on Wednesdays would raise roughly $400,000 in one fiscal year.
“Those funds go back into the downtown and surrounding city transportation systems, and so a lot of the pedestrian amenities in downtown – the sidewalk repairs, the more regular sweeping and stuff – is paid for using those parking revenues, so it goes right back into the system,” he said.
Spillar said some people who work downtown at night can use the Waller Creek Center Garage on 10th Street for $35 a month.
His proposal cites a recent study commissioned by the Downtown Austin Alliance, a nonprofit coalition of local businesses. The study was conducted San Francisco-based Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates.
Jeff Tumlin, a principal with Nelson\Nygaard, said the proposal to extend meters on Wednesday nights is a step forward.
“The next step, though, is the most important one," he said, "which is taking the pricing of parking frankly away from the city council and instead having the city council establish policy for the pricing of parking.”
Rather than having council members sign off on hourly rates, Tumlin said, the idea is to set the price of parking based on demand and allow it to fluctuate somewhat. The ultimate goal is to achieve about 15 percent available spots at any given time, and that could mean setting different rates in different parts of downtown.
“Our recommendation again is that the price be set at the lowest price that achieves the availability target, and so that means it’ll be more expensive in the core of the downtown than at the edge,” he said. “In fact, at the edge, probably the right price is free, particularly during off-peak times.”
Spillar said he plans to present the proposed meter change to the Austin City Council early this year.