Editorial: Time for a tuneup on Worcester parking

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In a lot of cities, parking is exciting — if you call sweating and swearing while driving exciting. When, where and whether you’ll find it, and how much it’ll dent your wallet, are worries as soon as you enter city limits.

In Worcester, we’re luckier. Parking’s pretty boring. With about 10,000 parking spaces — nearly half of them municipally owned — we usually have little difficulty dropping off our vehicles for a few minutes or hours.

That’s a key advantage pointed out in a recent report from the Worcester Regional Research Bureau.

The report, “Parking in Worcester: Left by the Curb,” describes weaknesses in other areas — revenue, upkeep and a bureaucracy that’s basically Kelley Square on paper — and offers general recommendations we believe the city ought to heed.

In terms of parking availability, though, and “despite the grumbling,” the report tells us we’ve got it good.

Not to mention there’s a gradually growing list of things to see and do downtown that makes us want to come, car and all, if we decide against one of the public-transportation choices.

But now for the bad news from the study. For one: Modest price increases are likely in store at the four municipal parking garages.

Drivers have enjoyed bargain rates that have been too low for too long, says the bureau, whose report reinforces a push by some city officials in the last few years to raise those rates.

The locations and fees for the city’s four garages and 13 lots across downtown are described on a city webpage. The garages are: Federal Plaza at 570 Main St., Major Taylor at 30 Major Taylor Boulevard, Pearl-Elm at 20 Pearl St., and Union Station at 225 Franklin St. A garage under part of CitySquare will add a fifth to the list when it opens in the coming months.

As detailed in a Worcester Business Journal story last week, parking rates at the municipal garages have been kept artificially low in order to attract people and organizations to the city’s core. Those rates are under $10 for the daytime maximum at all four municipal garages, considerably less than what would be charged even at some nearby private lots, the report says.

The city Department of Public Works and Parks proposes to raise those rates by about $1 a year for five years, and a city parking board recently approved the first year of the increases, bureau reports.

The research group also urges officials to renegotiate higher rates for the system’s many corporate accounts. Those accounts cover well over half the system’s spaces and often offer even lower rates.

We agree a move toward competitive market rates makes sense now that the city is well past the luring phase of its downtown refurbishment efforts. Further, the report gives a peek under the hood of the city’s parking finances that offers no case at all for cheap parking.

Maintenance at the parking garages has been neglected. The report points out that, according to the city’s public works commissioner, a total of $17.7 million in capital improvements over 10 years are needed at all four garages, $10.4 million of it for Pearl-Elm.

Parking revenues, rightly, are designed to be steered back to the facilities. (Fines, on the other hand, go into the general fund.) But the process is convoluted; while parking receipts are held in a dedicated parking reserve fund, staffing and fare collection are contracted out to a national company, LAZ Parking. And that reserve fund is tapped to cover the system’s deficits.

Meanwhile, in fiscal years 2013-2015, three of the four municipal garages ran in the red, the report says — the standout being Pearl-Elm, which is the oldest of the four by far, and sorely in need of work.

Raising parking rates won’t pay for all the improvements identified at the garages. Even in a good year, fiscal 2015, the city only made $85,000 from its garages, on the strength of Pearl-Elm’s performance. Still, more cash from garage parkers that then helps pay for parking improvements is appropriate (despite the grumbles), as long as the upgrades are chosen wisely.

Lighting — like the recent work done at Federal Plaza — and cleanliness, in our view, offer the most bang for the buck in terms of customer satisfaction. Users care about security for themselves and their property far more than how modern the equipment is, or how fancy the signs.

A plan for Pearl-Elm should make sure the old-fashioned safety basics are covered as fully as can be for an aging, enclosed structure on a pitched city side street.

Not just at the Pearl-Elm garage but across the system, sticking to the basics of solid customer service is paramount.

Particularly as the city’s parking system has been “running on fumes,” according to the report — posting an overall deficit of close to $450,000 over fiscal 2013-2105 — money for maintenance and upgrades must be spent wisely, on practical benefits that last.

Tweaks and innovations need to be workhorses, improving the ease with which people get in, get out, and pay. The pay-station modernization put in a couple of years ago at the Francis J. McGrath parking lot behind the library is widely hailed as an improvement. Many of us remember the meters there, some of which were perpetually jammed with coins that stuck up from the slots.

According to city officials, the Telegram & Gazette reported, technology upgrades behind the library and at other lots have improved both revenue and customer satisfaction. The credit card-friendly system is simple and it works — and with any luck we’ll still be saying that in 20 years.

Meanwhile, despite a system that tends to leak red ink, the need for maintenance shouldn’t be ignored. The Research Bureau — known for generally helping steer the city well — says the city should budget about $450,000 annually for basic garage maintenance.

That’s because “the projected revenues of all current public parking assets are not enough to cover management, operations, maintenance, debt service and over $17 million in repairs and improvements that the system needs over the next 10 years,” the report says.

At spots, however, solutions can be easy and inexpensive, and only take stepping into a visitor’s shoes. A case in point is the notoriously underused parking garage behind Union Station.

Potential users need to know it’s there. Better signage, the report says, could help drivers make the connection between the garage and destinations nearby, such as the DCU Center, and the shops and restaurants of Shrewsbury Street and the Canal District.

The relatively short report strongly urges that Worcester’s various parking-related functions be gathered into a division of the Department of Public Works and Parks division, headed by a parking chief. The bureau argues, in part, that this will help the system be nimble, allowing parking to be a better partner to the city’s redevelopment efforts instead of “left by the curb.”

The Research Bureau envisions the parking division being supported by an enterprise account into which parking revenues and fines would both flow.

We don’t disagree with a reorganization, but offer a simpler line of reasoning. It would make sense if it’s cost-effective and better serves the public in terms of their parking options and experience; as well as their dealings with the city on such matters as paying fines, making complaints and offering suggestions.

People everywhere are used to parking having to be sought and paid for. They appreciate finding it easily and paying a fair rate, while feeling safe, valued and welcome.

With its decent amount of parking and usually manageable and predictable traffic levels, Worcester doesn’t have the double-parkers, the honkers, the sky-high garage rates and the endlessly circling motorists of a Boston or New York. And officials don’t expect that to change much, even with all the economic development projects being rolled out.

Fortunately, Worcester has been proactive in building parking spaces, and has added some of the customer-friendly technologies that are becoming standard in the industry. But it’s let some things coast, especially maintenance at the municipal garages and the below-market parking rates there.

As a mechanic might say, wrench in hand: The system needs work if we want it to run smoothly. And it’s not going to be exciting.

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