Is New Canaan sitting on a gold mine of lost parking revenue?
As the town works its way through a proposed budget, which contains more than $9 million in additional spending and an almost 8 percent increase over 2012-13, questions about lost parking revenue raised by Board of Finance member John Sheffield recently could loom large.
"The price that commuters pay is vastly underpriced," Sheffield said at the Feb. 5 BOF budget meeting, speaking about the parking lot on Elm Street, known as the lumber yard lot. "They pay about $500 (a year for a permit). There are meters there that are $5 a day. Those are always full. Yearly, that means some people pay $1,200 per year and some people pay $500 a year. There's anywhere from $180,000 to $200,000 of lost revenue that we could use."
The statement raised some eyebrows among his fellow board members, who were looking at a budget from which the Board of Selectmen had already cut several important capital expenditures, such as funding for a new police console, new Public Works Department trucks to replace ones which are so rusted out that the road is visible through the floors in the cabs, and about $2 million more.
With its seven-year-long waiting list for a parking space, there appears to be much more demand for parking in the lumber yard lot than the 351 spaces that exist. Sheffield's argument, that the price charged is well below what the market would indicate, implies that the town is essentially subsidizing the price of convenient parking for some of its residents.
"It's an interesting question (raising parking prices) and I think it deserves study and I'm not against the idea. If anything, I might be for the idea. But it's not as simple as Mr. Sheffield has set out in the finance meeting," Richey said after the meeting. "I have exchanged emails with him. I think we're mostly on the same page ... . Before I got on the Parking Commission, I thought it was simple. Now I don't think so."
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First, Richey said, it is difficult to determine the actual market price. He said some private businesses around the train station that have extra spaces sell them to commuters for roughly $1,200 per year, but that those agreements are different from that of the lumber yard because those people own that spot and no one else can park there. In contrast, the Parking Commission sells about three times as many permits for the lot than spaces exist because it has determined that such an overselling is the amount that keeps the lot nearly full -- not everyone with a permit parks there every day. So, though the Parking Commission aims to always have spaces available, it is a possibility that a permit holder could come for a train and find the lot full. Additionally, the lumber yard does not allow overnight parking, he said. So the comparison is not apples to apples, he said.
Another point Richey made was a fear of gouging residents, who do already pay taxes to live in New Canaan. He said that with about a third of the town working in New York, there will be demand virtually no matter the price of parking, noting that the lumber yard already has one of the highest prices of any town-owned lot in Fairfield County.
"We're always going to have a waiting list. That's why we've proposed things like adding a second tier to the lumber yard lot, we could fill it in a day. The fact that you could increase the price so high that you would decrease the waiting list does not mean you're doing something in the best interest of New Canaan. The real answer to having more parking is more parking spaces, and that's expensive," he said.
Finally, Richey said many people who are on the waiting list for the lumber yard lot have permits in some of the other commuter lots, like Talmadge Hill and Richmond Hill, each of which cost about $100 less per year. These commuters are simply waiting to move up to a better, more convenient lot.
"It's not just about commuter parking," First Selectman Robert Mallozzi said in an interview. "If we're going to have that discussion, I want it to encompass all aspects of parking. It's a little incongruous to charge people that park farther away than to park in closer proximity (to Main or Elm Streets)."
"As long as I've been here, the subject has come up numerous times with mixed reactions," she said in an interview. "There have been studies that have shown that since (Main and Elm streets parking is) so prime, it should be charged for and lots off Elm should be charged less ... But some people have felt it isn't village-y (to charge)."
A main problem with parking on Elm is that many of the spaces are taken all day not by shoppers, but by shopkeepers and their employees.
"What we see as big issue is the number of merchants and merchants' employees who park on Main and Elm and take parking spaces that really should be for their customers," Richey said. "We created a low-priced permit in the Center School lot for about $120 so that almost anyone with any kind of salary could pay for parking ... Although that's been a success, there are still a number of merchants who park on Main and Elm."
Richey said the Parking Commission only has authority over permit parking, while the Police Commission is in charge of on-street parking. He said his commission's recommendations for permit prices will be made at its March 6 meeting and then passed to the Board of Selectmen for consideration. When he proposed a serious increase in permit prices about three years ago, he recalled that it was a tough sell to the Board of Selectmen.
The selectmen could be more open to hearing such a pitch this year, if one is made. According to Mallozzi,
"We are not opposed to any revisitation of paid parking."
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