Paid parking: Who gives a toot?
Paid parking, an annoying fact of life in downtown Aspen, is quietly observing its 10th anniversary.Nothing approaching the din that ushered the parking meter into town is likely to shatter the relative calm today, especially since parking remains free on Sundays.But on Jan. 9, 1995, Aspen endured one of the most controversial changes to the downtown core since the streets were paved or its first traffic light signaled the end of small-town simplicity. The initial 37 pay-and-display parking meters went into use a decade ago in an effort to open up parking spaces and reduce traffic congestion by encouraging mass-transit use. In 2004, paid parking was expected to produce about $1.2 million in revenue, which the city uses to help fund its free in-town bus service.The town was the first in North America to try the new style of parking meters – centralized machines that disperse vouchers for display on the dashboard, rather than single-space meters on poles lining the curbs. Today there are 60 of the machines in the core; thousands more have been installed in cities across the United States.
For locals who’ve never known a time when Aspen didn’t have paid parking, the rancor fueled by its introduction may be difficult to comprehend. Ten years ago, though, the meters debuted amid a bitter battle highlighted by the infamous honk-in at City Hall.On Friday, Dec. 30, 1994, 10 days before paid parking was slated to go into effect, opponents organized an ear-splitting protest – calling for motorists to circle the block outside City Hall, horns blaring, at noon. It was perhaps the most memorable day in former Mayor John Bennett’s four-term stint at the helm of city government.”It was unbelievable and I don’t say that lightly,” he said. “It was unbelievably loud.””It was deafening,” agreed Tim Ware, head of the city’s Parking Department. “I kind of hid inside. I’d already had enough hate mail and bad things said about my mother.”Enough protesters showed up to clog the core, Bennett recalled.
“It created gridlock in the entire downtown Aspen,” he said. “They were supposed to circle City Hall. Well, nobody could circle anything.”Bewildered tourists held their ears and ducked inside shops while the blaring continued for 14 minutes instead of the planned three minutes.A cardboard version of a parking meter was burned in effigy outside City Hall, while a Sierra Club member, protesting the protest, wandered among the autos wearing a gas mask and carrying a sign that read, “Honk if you love dirty air.”Bennett and Tom Dunlop, then head of the city’s Environmental Health Department, strolled around City Hall with a decibel meter and awarded the Blowhard Award to the loudest horn. A pickup truck driver received a set of ear plugs, $20 worth of free parking and a compact disc – the Rolling Stones’ “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out” featuring the track, “Honky Tonk Women.”More than a week later, when paid parking went into effect on a Monday morning, the streets were eerily silent, Bennett said. Apprehensive commuters apparently left their vehicles at home.”The streets didn’t just have a lot of parking spaces freed up, they were empty,” he said. “People were walking in the streets. There were virtually no cars.”
Bus ridership shot up and paid parking had the desired effect of opening up downtown parking spaces that had previously been clogged all day with locals’ vehicles, even though there had been a 90-minute limit in the core, Ware said.The following May, paid parking was put to a public vote and was endorsed overwhelmingly at the polls. Some of the most vocal opponents of paid parking ate their words, according to Ware.Terry Hale, now a local real estate broker, was one of paid parking’s most vehement detractors, helping organize the honk-in.”Paid parking has worked to help move cars around,” he conceded recently. “It keeps people from parking all day in one space. In that way, it has value.”
But Hale still blasts the city for failing to address the real problem – a shortage of parking spaces.”My opposition at the time was they were touting it as a solution and it wasn’t a solution,” he said. “Instead of creating more parking, they were going to charge us for what we had.”Today, retailers in the core often shrug off paid parking as a “necessary evil.””It was a painful move, but I think it was a necessary move,” said Steve DeGouviea, longtime owner of Footloose and Fancy Things.”I think it’s probably one of those bad things that we have to live with,” agreed Bill Dinsmoor, owner of the Main Street Bakery & Cafe. “I wish we didn’t have the need, but we do.”Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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Ghez, 55, has long been a familiar name around the Aspen Center for Physics, a nonprofit launched in 1962 that seeks to bring the best minds in the world together for collaboration and innovation.