"First Hour Free" downtown parking initiative goes live


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Although many Iowa City residents, University of Iowa students, and out-of-town visitors don’t always see eye-to-eye, ask them what their biggest probnlem about the downtown’s transportation system is, and you may find common ground.

Parking, whether it’s at the city’s 1,150 metered spaces or the more than 4,300 parking ramp and surface street stalls, is one of the most highly scrutinized components of the city center.

But beginning today, city and downtown officials are hopeful that day-to-day trips may become less of a hassle with the installment of the new “First Hour Free” ramp initiative.

In a June 27 city news release, Transportation Services Director Chris O'Brien said beginning today, the cost will be $2 for three-hour ramp parking; a $1 an hour charge is implemented following the first free hour. The former rate was $2.25 per hour. The program applies to only the Capitol Street, Dubuque Street, and Tower Place parking ramps starting today. First hour free will open at the Court Street Transportation Center in the middle of this month.

On-street metered parking will not be included in the program.

Duncan Parking Technologies Inc. contracted the Park & Shop replacement program at a cost of $546,375. Annual operating costs are expected to be $77,550 per year.

City ramps and surface street parking lots generate approximately $5.35 million in revenue to date.

Transportation Services staff started the installation of new smart-meter signage on downtown parking meter polls on June 27, before 1,150 new solar powered smart meters began replacing the former 12-year old models on June 29 and Sunday.

The new units accept Visa, MasterCard, and Discover credit cards, as well as coins.

Nancy Bird, the Downtown District executive director, and all the city councilors could not be reached for comment as of Sunday evening. Bird told the DI in an April 15 interview that 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 longtime Iowa City resident Zebediah Wahls, the new program should signal an influx of sales and customers downtown, particularly to retail and grocery stores and fast-casual restaurants, while reeling little positives for the bar scene.

As an employee of Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St. she said she expects other merchants to eventually expand their downtown footprint with new businesses to follow.

“I think people will be more willing to go downtown for smaller errands,” she said. “As downtown becomes more available, people who may have gone to the [Coral Ridge] Mall may not now [because] even for longer excursions, it’s still a good deal [to park in the ramps].”

Cedar Rapids City Councilor, architect, and Skogman Realty broker Scott Olson said that although Cedar Rapids’ recently installed solar-powered parking stations have garnered hefty revenue benefits, he expects Iowa City’s new parking initiative to catch on quicker because of the single-meter and first hour free aspects.

A number of wrenches have been thrown into the mix in Cedar Rapids’ new system, Olson said, including lack of handicapped accessibility, a lack of a free hour free, an unorganized ramp system, and slow-loading technology.

“People said, they would never come downtown again. Now, that hasn’t really happened,” he said. “But there’s still frustration, especially with older people or outside residents.”

Iowa City Michele Ruelas questioned the resulting new and expanding business notion, but she said she sees the downtown lunch crowd growing.

Despite working near downtown, she often doesn’t come to the area during her lunch period because, she said, she could rarely find an on-street space quickly.

But, with the new program, she anticipates coming downtown on a more regular basis to dine and shop.

“No longer having to plug the meter at the [Iowa City Public] Library to just drop off a few books will be nice,” she said. “But I usually take longer than an hour to shop when I’m down here.”

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