When paid parking first came to Aspen
October 3, 2007
When the idea of paid parking in downtown became a reality nearly 13 years ago, it angered Aspenites to a point that then-Mayor John Bennett feared someone was going to burn his business to the ground.”It was the most intense pressure I have ever felt in my life,” recalled Bennett, who used to own Pour La France restaurant on Main Street. “It was horrible. I didn’t sleep much.”
The idea came from a committee dedicated to finding transportation solutions as part of the 1993 Aspen Area Community Plan, which called for capping traffic at then-current levels. Traffic during that year was the worst the town had ever experienced. Downtown was endlessly in gridlock as workers and tourists vied for parking spaces. At the time, drivers were allowed to park for free throughout town – all they had to do was move to a different slot to avoid exceeding the 90-minute time limit.”I distinctly remember the day we were sitting with the transportation committee, and they said ‘we have this idea,'” Bennett said. “I remember shifting uneasily in my chair and saying to myself ‘please Lord don’t let this happen on my watch.'”But it did. Bennett ended up a supporter of paid parking, which was instituted in January 1995 and then endorsed by voters four months later. The election was held to confirm that officials had made the right move once citizens could see how the program worked.”We promised we would,” Bennett said of holding a public vote. “We didn’t want to permanently ram this down their throats but the risk-reward ratio seemed too great because all indications showed that it would work.”Over time, Aspenites have accepted paid parking as a device that frees up parking spaces in the commercial core, where they are most needed. But in the months leading up to the installation of the meters, citizens’ anger bubbled and eventually erupted. Aspen resident Terry Hale spearheaded what is known now as one of Aspen’s most memorable protests.
“We were trying to make some noise,” Hale said. “What they were doing was so silly.”On Dec. 29, 1994, just days before the council was scheduled to vote on paid parking, residents were called upon to circle City Hall in their cars and sound their horns for five minutes. It ended up lasting 20 minutes.”You can imagine that downtown was completely jammed … cars flooded side streets,” Bennett said. “It was incredibly loud, awesomely loud.”Bennett joked that he had contemplated heading into the backcountry that day, but he decided to tough it out in town. He met the situation with humor by standing on Galena Street with then Environmental Health Director Tom Dunlop and listened for the loudest horn, courtesy of Dunlop’s decibel meter.”It was the first annual Blow Hard Award,” he said, adding the winner received days’ worth of free parking, earplugs and the Rolling Stones’ single “Honky Tonk Women.”After the controversy died down to a dull roar and officials had installed the last meter, paid parking began.
“The day came and I walked into town with some trepidation,” Bennett said. “I remember this funny feeling … I saw all these people walking with slightly bewildered, dazed looks. No one drove. It was quite wonderful.”Then-Councilwoman Georgeann Waggaman had been out of town during the holidays and when she returned, public sentiment against paid parking had reached its boiling point. She soon realized that she would be the deciding vote on the council, which ultimately ended up 3-2 in favor of the plan. On the first day of actual metered parking, her experience resembled Bennett’s.”Town kind of had a walk-in, it was fun,” she said.When asked if he thinks paid parking still works today, Bennett responded: “If we took away paid parking today we would know how well it worked.”Bennett now lives downvalley, and said he tries to take the bus as much as possible. Regardless, he’s just glad he’s not part of the latest idea to expand paid parking into residential neighborhoods.”I’m really happy to be in Emma these days,” he laughed.