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Parking program a financial success

Revenue dramatically increased during the first year of Lexington's parking program, which has new meters and strictly enforced time limits. Merchants are not entirely embracing the changes, but they are learning to live with them.

"Enforcing the two-hour limit did what they said it was going to do. It's moved the campers off the street," said Gene Williams, owner of Natasha's Café and Life Props Gallery on The Esplanade.

The "campers" are downtown workers who parked on the street and fed the meters all day, tying up hundreds of meters. This made it difficult for people who came downtown for a couple of hours on business or to eat to find parking, he said.

Williams and his employees have all received parking tickets, he said. "I'd park, run in Natasha's for 20 minutes, come out and find a ticket."

He said it took several months "to train people to know what the new program is. Basically, you can't park down here all day and not get a ticket," he said. "But once they got the hang of it, then it works."

Throughout downtown, Chevy Chase and the University of Kentucky area, Lexington has 1,300 paid on-street parking spaces. The majority are downtown.

The city-operated program, called Lexpark, was introduced last summer. Since then, 50 new pay-and-display meters have been installed, each taking the place of 10 old-style 1950s-era meters. There also are 850 stand-alone meters.

At the same time, Lexpark put five parking enforcers on the streets, most in three-wheel "chariots." The enforcers use small, hand-held computers to register license numbers and keep track of how long cars are parked.

Another big change was an increase in parking-meter rates: from 25 cents an hour to $1. About 200 meters charge 50 cents an hour.

The last time meter fees increased was 1984, when the cost went from a nickel an hour to 25 cents.

All of those measures combined to have a big impact on downtown parking.

"Now there's a lot of available parking for shoppers and diners, people who need it. That was the goal," Williams said.

The turnover of cars at meters throughout the day helps downtown businesses and generates income for the parking authority, said Gary Means, executive director of the Lexington and Fayette County Parking Authority.

The goal is "85 percent occupancy of parking meters. That translates to about one empty parking space per block, at any given time," he said. "Basically, we can guarantee you a parking space when you come downtown."

Areas like South Limestone — before the Lexpark program — "used to be full all the time with downtown employees clogging them up," he said.

Old Vine Street also was chronically full. "We cleaned it up. Those workers found free parking further away," Means said. "Now you can always find a place to park on Vine."

North Limestone between Main and Second streets "every day is packed at lunch," he said. "Maybe having some empty meters a block or two away is good for the overflow."

Means sees available parking spaces as "an economic development tool, especially for retail."

Not everybody is happy with the new parking system. Anna Marletta, general manager of Bellini's on West Main Street, said some customers dislike walking half a block to put money in the pay-and-display meters.

Her employees were frustrated by getting parking tickets, especially people who make $2.15 an hour. "They were paying more in tickets than they were making coming down to work," she said.

Some Natasha's employees solved their parking problems by finding free on-street spaces, although it meant walking two or three blocks, Williams said. He rents three spaces in a nearby parking garage for key employees. He said some business owners tell their employees to find a private space, and "we'll split the cost with you."

In Chevy Chase, some merchants are unhappy with the pay-and-display meters. "They're a great application, but not for the 800 block of Euclid Avenue," said Bill Farmer, owner of Farmer's Jewelry.

"People understand a parking meter and how to put a quarter in. But anything that makes it more difficult and less convenient for people to shop is not good for small businesses."

However, beginning in April, the parking authority began studying parking meter use in Chevy Chase and found that people used old meters less and new meters more, Means said.

"Just recently, we reached a tipping point," he said. "There are more people in Chevy Chase choosing new meters over old meters."

Mary Ginocchio, owner of Mulberry & Lime, a home accessory shop, said there was a "hard learning curve" when the new meters were installed. Her customers, especially older ones, were initially "very concerned about using them."

Finally, Ginocchio went out and tried one herself. "I was pleased how easy and convenient it is," she said. That there is one pay-and-display meter per block should not be a deterrent, she said. "That shouldn't be too far for people to walk."

Lexpark has more than paid for itself in its first year. Combined revenue from parking meters, fines and neighborhood permits — the parking authority's three main sources of revenue — more than doubled in the 2009 fiscal year.

"We nipped the million dollar mark our first year," Means said. In 2008, the combined revenue was $428,000.

The authority paid all of its bills and ended the year with about a $100,000 surplus. That surplus will help the city make its last bond payment on the Transit Center parking garage.

Future surpluses will be used to replace worn-out equipment and could go toward building a downtown parking garage, Means said.

He credits Lexpark's increased profits to Republic Parking System, in Chattanooga, which was hired to manage the program. Under Republic, revenue from parking fines alone jumped from $250,000 last year to $541,000 in 2009.

Before Lexpark, "The city typically wrote about 20,000 citations a year, Means said. "We wrote 50,000 this year."

The collection rate on parking tickets "in a well-run city is 70 percent, Means said. "We're clipping along this year at 80 percent."