Higher parking fees coming soon to Colorado Springs, city's new director says

Published: Jun. 16, 2019 at 9:14 PM MDT
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Colorado Springs’ new parking enterprise director said he plans to raise parking meter and garage rates in the city. It’s not the first time Scott Lee suggested such a change, and he’s familiar with the type of backlash this can draw, but he’s undeterred.

It’s for the city’s benefit, after all, Lee said.

Mayor John Suthers hired Lee from San Luis Obispo, California, in October. There, he managed the city’s parking services, the same job he held in Madison, Wisconsin, and Bozeman, Montana.

Quickly, Suthers put Lee to work assessing the city’s parking enterprise, which includes nearly 2,500 garage spaces and more than 2,000 on-street parking meters.

In short, Lee said the city must invest in maintaining garages, meters should be upgraded and parking fees for both should be higher. Colorado Springs is well-behind in parking fees, he said.

Finding a precise dollar amount, hourly or fixed-rates, can be difficult, Lee acknowledges. He’s striving for 80 percent occupancy in downtown meters with slightly lower rates in garages. Those lower rates should be an incentive, especially for those parking all day, to use garages, he said.

“You can’t say, ‘Here’s your population, therefore you have to raise your rates to this,’” Lee said. “In this market, the rates are too low for what everybody could pay.”

This is especially true when comparing Colorado Springs with major metropolitan areas, Lee said. The city should also extend meter hours to 10 p.m., which cities like Denver do.

“I could jack up the prices and most people couldn’t find another spot, but we’re not going to get to that point,” Lee said. “We have to catch up and we’re going to do it over a reasonable period of time.”

Ultimately, Lee’s work is a study in human behavior.

Raising meter and garage rates is not a major fundraising mechanism for the city, but rather a way to create turnover downtown, he said. If rates are too low, motorists will park downtown indefinitely, blocking others’ access to stores and restaurants. The same problem exists when meters stop charging too early in the evening.

The city’s downtown meters now charge $1 per hour with less-centralized meters and garages charging $0.75 per hour.

“The proposal is to create a three-tiered system but basically they would all go up a quarter annually,” Lee wrote in an email.

The most central meters would have the highest prices, while far-flung meters would cost less, he said.

“The meters currently go to 6 p.m. and are free on Sundays,” he wrote. “We propose to extend to 10 p.m. and add Sundays from 1 p.m. — 10 p.m.”

Garages would increase $0.25 an hour, he said. Monthly passes would increase as well as evening and weekend rates.

“All increases are timed to take effect at the same time, basically each January,” he said, adding annual increases allow residents to plan for the hikes.

He’s aware of the ire the raise might draw from residents. He includes his mother — who lives in Colorado Springs — among those who might take issue. But they need to be realistic, he said.

“Parking rates have not increased … not once in 20 years,” he said.

Suthers, who’s often mentioned the nominal rates, supports Lee.

“You don’t need to travel far to realize that our parking rates are unusually low and will not sustain necessary equipment upgrades and maintenance needs,” Suthers said.

Added revenue from the increased rates can be invested back into garages, streetscapes and technology, Lee said. Meters can be upgraded and, before that, the existing ones can be used to connect to phone applications to allow electronic payment, he said.

In addition, the mechanical arms at the entrances and exits of the city’s garages can be replaced to streamline parking and then track data the city is missing out on, he said. The extra revenue would also increase the enterprise’s bonding capacity for expansion, which is critical as downtown — especially the southwest side — grows.

“With the new technology available in smart parking meters, and the potential need to expand parking options in and around downtown, I appreciate Scott’s plan to grow the enterprise while keeping parking rates extremely affordable for Colorado Springs,” Suthers said.

Businesses are, by and large, behind Lee’s proposal, said Susan Edmondson, president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs.

“They’re business people,” Edmondson said. “They understand that change is needed … when you haven’t changed your rates in 16 or 18 years, yes, they understand that’s not sustainable.”

Over her shoulder, Edmondson looked out the southeast window of her office in the Plaza of the Rockies’ North Tower, noting that the top floor of a nearby parking garage had many empty spaces. A shift in the city’s parking system could change that for the better, she said.

Especially as the southwest side of downtown and South Tejon Street grow, Edmondson said more and better parking accommodations will be needed.

It’s the goal of downtown businesses to offer unique experiences and services that can only be found in Colorado Springs, Edmondson said. To that end, residents will likely still head downtown, despite any rate increases.

Lee offered a similar sentiment. So long as the city can show improvements for the increased fees, the majority will likely understand the shift: decreased wait times, parking data available online, phone applications, improved streetscapes and well maintained and well-lit garages should help quell criticism, he said.

The parking enterprise is taking in about $5 million in revenue annually, Lee said. Within a decade, that number could double.

Standing on the curb of Tejon Street on Friday morning after plugging a few quarters into a meter, Willie Jones raised an eyebrow when he heard about the possible rate increases.

Jones said he can understand a bit of a raise but would oppose rates higher than $1 an hour.

Still, Jones conceded he’d have no choice except to pay more if rates climb.

“I’ve got business downtown,” he said. “It’s like raising the taxes on cigarettes and alcohol. People might not like it, but they’ll always buy.”

The City Council must approve Lee’s plan before rate increases go into effect. Lee said he’ll bring his proposal before the council this year.