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Changes coming for downtown Iowa City parking

BY QUENTIN MISIAG | APRIL 15, 2013 5:00 AM

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Lily Howard drives downtown three to four times each week — dining at a number of restaurants and visiting a variety of retail stores. Nearly each time, she finds herself scrounging for a handful of change to plug the area’s aging on-street parking meters.

“A lot of the times, it’s hard to find parking on the street, so I park in the ramp,” the Iowa City native and City High senior said. “I usually have a bunch of change lying around in my car, but sometimes, it’s a struggle.”

Come July, however, she and other downtown visitors could be faced with a wealth of new pay-to-park options aimed at simplifying the highly scrutinized downtown component.

Officials at the Iowa City Parking Division will begin testing new parking meters in the one-block area of Clinton, Dubuque, Washington, and Iowa today through April 26. Parking employees will be on hand near the new units to assist with their use and to garner users’ responses.

The meters, designed by five yet-to-be announced companies, give patrons options to pay on-site with cash, credit card, or by way of a smartphone app, in addition to the standard coin payment.

Chris O’Brien, the director of Iowa City Transportation Services, said officials will recommend one company during the  May 14 City Council meeting, with a July 1 target installation date. Total cost and company information will not be made available until then.

All of these changes, along with the new meter technology, are part of the “First Hour Free” initiative, O’Brien said. This initiative includes the first hour free in the Capitol Street, Dubuque Street, and Tower Place parking ramps, with the Court Street Transportation Center coming online this summer.

“As a part of that program, we are also looking into increases in our on-street rates,” he said. “Later enforcement hours were initially proposed but are still in the discussion phase, and no final determination has been made. No changes are being proposed for our parking-permit rates.”

The technology also allows for meter availability to be seen online, allowing city officials to monitor traffic levels while showing drivers where available parking spaces are located.

To date, the 1,150 parking meters and more than 4,300 parking spaces located in city ramps and surface street parking lots generate approximately $5.35 million in revenue.

Additional multi-space parking units — where users pay for parking by way of a listed index of available spaces, currently found in the Chauncey Swan and Court Street parking ramps — will also be tested, with one unit placed on South Clinton Street, South Dubuque Street, and the eastern portion of Iowa Avenue.

Upon implementation, enforced parking times downtown and near downtown — the area from Clinton and Market Streets to Burlington Street — will be expanded from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. during the week. Parking fine durations would also be extended from the current six-month period to a year-round basis. Each additional hour in a ramp would cost $1.

Under the new plan, first-time tickets would remain a warning, but the second and third offenses would increase from $5 to $7 and $10 to $12, respectively.

Nancy Bird, the Downtown District executive director, said the overarching goal of the new plan is to change the long-standing stigma that parking downtown is a constant inconvenience.

“If it’s easier to park and find a space, it could have a very big impact on the area,” she wrote in an email. “Parking challenges are a reflection of the high demand to access our restaurants and businesses.”

For Howard, the creation of the “First Hour Free” initiative in particular should translate into her spending even more time downtown.

“I think it’s an excellent idea, because there are so many people coming downtown for less than an hour [at a time], so it’s way more convenient,” she said. “I will definitely be more inclined to go downtown if the first hour is free.”


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