Aspen looks to curb free parking, again |

Aspen looks to curb free parking, again

ASPEN ” Parking on the outskirts of downtown Aspen will soon become more difficult as officials consider several disincentives to get people out of their cars.

Options scheduled to go before the Aspen City Council next month include expanding paid parking in neighborhoods, limiting motorists to parking in the same zone for only two hours a day, and scanning people’s license plates in order to monitor their movements.

Local parking officials are scheduled to visit Fort Collins in the coming weeks to see how their system works, specifically a vehicle that has a camera built into it that scans license plates. The idea is to abandon the system of chalking tires in order to determine how long a car has been parked.

The goal is to eliminate what’s known as the “two-hour shuffle,” when long-term parkers move their car from one space to another in the same area to take advantage of the city’s free two-hour parking in certain zones.

The City Council last fall was poised to vote on installing 70 to 75 new pay stations in neighborhoods, forcing people to pay to park in roughly 1,500 spaces that are currently free, two-hour spots.

An ordinance to expand paid parking three blocks in every direction off the downtown core, as well as the blocks off of Durant Avenue along the base of Aspen Mountain, was expected to be voted on by the City Council last October. But elected leaders wanted to consider other alternatives before making such an unpopular political move.

Since then, parking officials, including Assistant City Manager Randy Ready and Colin Laird, director of Healthy Mountain Communities, have explored several different options, as well as how other cities enforce their parking policies.

Three proposals likely will go before the City Council on March 17 and the expansion of paid parking is one of them, said Tim Ware, the city’s parking and transportation director.

Other likely possibilities to be considered by the council are creating a database to track vehicles through license plate recognition and forbidding people to park in the same zone for more than two hours in a 12-hour period.

Ware said he tried out a hand-held device that scans license plates but it proved to be too cumbersome and time intensive. Fort Collins’ vehicles that are equipped with cameras might be more efficient, he added. In Fort Collins, the vehicle’s camera links the license plates to a database.

The cost of those vehicles is unknown, but it’s likely to be expensive. Whatever the council decides, high-tech parking enforcement solutions will cost money.

“None of this stuff is cheap,” Ware said. “But I don’t think any of it will deter [the council] from doing something.”

The expansion of paid parking has been estimated to cost $950,000 to implement, but would generate $240,000 a year in revenue.

City officials’ goal is to make the transportation fund self-sufficient.

Officials last year estimated an annual shortfall in the fund between $1.6 million and $2.2 million through 2014. City Hall pays the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority $4.1 million to provide nine free bus routes within town. But costs are rising at a clip of at least 6 percent a year, and revenue is expected to increase by only 3.5 percent.

The current paid-parking program brings in about $2.5 million in annual revenue, which covers operating costs for the Rio Grande parking garage, the parking department and some transit services. The city’s share of the 1 percent countywide transit tax and half of the 1 percent city lodging tax combined generates a little more than $3.5 million for city bus service.

Paid parking fees went up an average of 30 percent in December, which will yield nearly $536,000 a year and will help pay for the transportation fund.

In addition to raising parking fees, voters last fall approved a 2.1 percent tax on construction and building materials, and a 0.15 percent sales tax. The construction-use tax is expected to generate between $1.6 million and $1.8 million every year and went into effect Jan. 1. The new 0.15 percent sales tax will generate about $870,000 annually and will take effect in September 2009, when the current 0.25 percent sales tax for parking expires.

Many commuters choose to drive simply because the free two-hour parking exists. Others must drive because they are electricians, massage therapists, maids and other service workers who need their cars to travel to many destinations with their equipment. Some people have children coming and going from schools and after-school activities, and errands that need to be done.

That’s why hundreds of people take advantage of free parking, one of the last worker-friendly offerings left in Aspen. But, when commuters park in two-hour zones and then simply move their cars periodically through the day, officials see it as an abuse of the system.

Parking officials considered other options as directed by council members but won’t be recommended. One of those alternatives is what’s known as “VMT,” or Vehicle Miles Traveled ” a system that charges motorists based on how often they drive. It would be monitored through odometer readings when motorists register their vehicles.

Another option not on the table is known as congestion pricing, in which motorists are charged for the amount of time they are parked in town, which would be tracked by the license plate recognition system. Motorists would have a credit card on file and be charged similar to how toll road programs operate.

Residents also could be credited up to 50 cents a day when they don’t drive, which could offset the costs of when they do drive.

Those ideas could be plausible concepts once the new parking policies are established.

“Once we have a system in place, it may be more likely,” Ware said, adding pilot programs could be started to see if they work, but those programs are expensive to implement and manage. “Parking is incredibly complicated.”

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