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The price of parking: La Crosse eyes changes to fees, technology

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Ramp 3rd Pine

Work continues on the ramp at Third and Pine streets, which will provide about 600 spaces, and is scheduled to open in September. The city of La Crosse is looking at new ways of charging for parking to help offset the cost of the $17.2 million project and other public facilities.

Armed with new technology, the city of La Crosse is looking to change the way motorists pay for downtown parking, bringing revenues more in line with costs and putting a greater share of the burden on nonresidents.

The city has long viewed parking as a tool of economic development, but with more than $13 million in debt on four downtown parking ramps and a fifth set to come on line this fall at a cost of more than $17 million, Mayor Tim Kabat said the city can no longer afford to foot the bill.

“That scenario and ratio has gotten out of hand,” Kabat said during a meeting of the La Crosse Area Planning Committee. “That’s got to change.”

Beginning this summer, the city plans to increase the cost to lease a stall from $40 a month to $100, though city residents will receive a discount. Drivers will also be able to choose a $40 per month option that guarantees them a spot in the ramp but not a specific parking space.

The city is also exploring the idea of charging for on-street parking in neighborhoods around large institutions such as the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and Gundersen Health Systems, where commuters often go in search of convenience or to duck fees.

The goal is to make the city’s parking utility a self-sustaining entity, though Kabat said pricing can also be a tool in the LAPC’s ongoing efforts to reduce traffic congestion without additional pavement.

But the actual costs are far greater, said Mike Giese, who chairs the Sustainable La Crosse Commission and was representing La Crosse County at Wednesday’s meeting.

Giese pointed out the city would need to charge $317 a month per stall to cover the true cost of building and maintaining the ramp and the lost tax revenue from having a parking ramp occupying prime downtown real estate.

“We’re subsidizing the private automobile to a tremendous degree,” Giese said. “I contend what differentiates a successful city from an unsuccessful city is whether they charge for parking.”

Giese was pointing out an idea popularized by Donald Shoup, an economist and researcher in the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA, who calls free off-street parking “a fertility drug for cars.”

In his book, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” Shoup writes that cities have tried and failed to manage parking without regard to price based on an assumption that parking must be free, creating an entitlement through ordinances requiring developers to provide a certain number of off-street parking spaces for every residence or business. Shoup argues that the cost of all this free parking gets passed along to consumers, even those who don’t drive, and encourages people to drive more rather than using other modes of transportation.

“Free parking is an invitation to drive wherever we go,” he writes.

City-county tensions

The intergovernmental group charged with setting transportation policy for the metropolitan area, the LAPC began exploring transportation alternative strategies last year at the urging of state transportation officials, but the discussion initially faltered amid the absence of key players and uncertainty over how to foster cooperation between the three cities, two villages and multiple towns that make up its membership.

The organization has set out this year to look at ways members can manage traffic through land use policy, public transit and transportation alternatives like walking and biking, though progress has been uneven.

The Feb. 15 meeting where members were supposed to present plans for encouraging compact development and more ubiquitous walking and biking failed to generate a quorum. Only five representatives attended and only two — the city and county of La Crosse — had prepared presentations.

Kabat chastised other members of the organization for not doing more to curtail sprawl or encourage transportation alternatives and accused Giese of “crocodile tears” because he joined other county supervisors in voting to sell a downtown parking lot to developer Don Weber while requiring the city to provide parking in the new $17.2 million Vine Street parking ramp.

“We need to be pushing ourselves. If we’re not pushing to change the status quo, nobody’s going to be pushing that,” Kabat said. “When it ultimately came down to policymakers having a chance … you all voted to maintain the status quo.”

Pavement alternatives

The discussion comes as the Department of Transportation looks to address what has become a $143 million road project through the La Crosse River marsh that was shelved after a 1998 city referendum but has lingered on the state’s list of approved projects.

The DOT is in the final stages of a planning process that began in 2016 and included dozens of meetings with the public and advisory groups.

The agency has identified six potential strategies designed to improve safety and alleviate congestion on the area’s three north-south corridors. All include significant new pavement, which has drawn opposition from neighborhood organizations, environmental groups and the city of La Crosse.

While the DOT said non-pavement alternatives alone will not take enough vehicles off the road to prevent future congestion, the agency encouraged local communities to move ahead.

The changes are being made possible by a new free-flow system that will replace gates in ramps with remote pay stations and smartphone apps where users can pay for hourly parking.

Parking Utility coordinator James Flottmeyer said the new system, which includes automated license plate readers, will allow for greater efficiency in enforcement and more flexibility in pricing.

Flottmeyer said the new fees are designed to close the current $500,000 gap between revenues and the cost of maintaining municipal ramps. He noted pay stations could also be used to generate revenue from on-street parking that could be re-invested in the downtown, which in turn would help attract more visitors.

Will Kratt, a transportation engineer with ISG Design Firm and a member of the economic vitality committee of Downtown Mainstreet Inc., said the downtown merchants group will work to educate the public as the city moves forward.

“This is not just a parking issue. It relates to traffic demand. It relates to economic vitality,” Kratt said. “There are a lot of ways to do that — not simply adding more parking supply.”

Note: This story has been updated to clarify the parking lease options that will be available under the new plan. 

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