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Outdated Meters, Lagging Revenue: Downtown Parking Problems Persist

Mary Hansen
NPR Illinois
Some of the parking signs on Fifth Street downtown.

Downtown Springfield is jammed with parking problems. Shoppers and tourists complain about a lack of nearby spots, while study after study shows occupancy rates for spots remain low.

Outdated meters only accept coins, and it’s getting harder to repair broken ones as the company that made them discontinued the model Springfield has and stopped servicing them. Parking revenue for the City of Springfield is near its lowest point in the last eight years.

Mayor Jim Langfelder set aside money in his proposed budget to purchase some new parking meters, which would accept credit cards.

The city received seven proposals for parking solutions last week, according to the purchasing department. Two years ago, the same number of vendors responded to a similar request for proposals. Change in personnel and an upcoming election delayed a decision then, Langfelder said.

Meanwhile, a group of high school students looked into the problem in the fall and proposed a few solutions. A couple downtown business owners have also taken to addressing the problem themselves.

Communication Is Key

When Jessica Kocurek moved her salon - Willow and Birch - from Springfield’s west side to downtown, there was one question she got: What about parking?

“In my experience, (parking) is not terrible,” Kocurek said as she sewed extensions into a client’s hair. “Could it be better? Yes. But are there options? Yes.”

Kocurek takes advantage of two options. She leases spaces for her staff in a lot near the train station and validates parking in the garage under the Old State Capitol. But the biggest thing she does is talk about it.

“Whenever you say, ‘come downtown, this is where our address is, figure it out,’ that can be very scary especially for people who don’t patron downtown on a regular basis,” she said. “So we made sure the communication was there, so it took the fear away from it.”

Information about where to park is on the salon’s website, and staff make sure clients know about it in calls and texts to confirm appointments. She said this works for her business, but she understands it might not for retail businesses that don’t make appointments with customers.

She said the city could do more to improve parking. Linda Renehan, who owns Springfield Vintage on Fifth Street, agrees. Renehan has been on a mission to improve downtown parking for months on behalf of Downtown Springfield, Inc.

Credit Mary Hansen / NPR Illinois
Linda Renehan, who runs Springfield Vintage, gave parking tours to Springfield officials to show them confusing signs.

“In a lot of ways it’s not as bad as it used to be,” Renehan said. “But when you’ve got the city of Springfield telling everyone that parking sucks and there’s been no major work towards helping it, it’s now become the reality.”

Renehan pointed out that on one downtown block, there are 15 signs that say no parking. Meanwhile, there are few signs directing tourists and shoppers to the public garages.

“We’ve missed all these opportunities to tell people where to park, (but) we’re really good at telling them don’t park,” Renehan said.

Renehan took a few city officials, including the mayor and some aldermen, on her downtown parking tour, showing them confusing signage and broken meters. And in the last few weeks she’s seen progress. The city’s public works department removed several no parking signs and added three signs directing people to the parking garages.

Still, she’d like to see new meters and consistent information about where people can park. Downtown Springfield, Inc. also suggested covering snow emergency signs that say “No Parking” nine months out of the year and converting all metered parking to two hours.

“We need to work together to try to make it an easier downtown to navigate and a more understandable system of parking,” said Lisa Clemmons-Stott, executive director of Downtown Springfield, Inc.

City of Springfield Parking Revenue

Lagging Revenue

Springfield has a total of around 1,400 meters, with 563 spaces in what the biennial parking survey (PDF) calls the core shopping parking area - bound by Third, Eighth, Madison and Jackson streets. There are seven different meter designations, from 30-minute parking to 9 hours, with most designated as 2-hour spots.

Clemmons-Stott said the variation adds to the confusion around where to park, which is in part why the group recommends changing all meters to two-hours.

“Even if there was a method to the madness at a certain point, we might need to just reset everything to make it a more positive experience,” she said. “That's what downtown Springfield wants - a positive experience.”

In the 2019 study, occupancy rates for those spaces were around 48%, meaning that during peak times in the late morning and early afternoon, about half the spaces in downtown were available.

Revenue from meter fees brought in around $426,000 this fiscal year, which ends at the end of the month. That’s nearly $100,000 less than they brought in in 2013, according to data from the city’s budget office.

Public garage fees from the 7th and Monroe, Washington Street and a share of the Abraham LIncoln Presidential Library and Museum parking spots earned the city around $188,000 this year. That income reached $262,000 eight years ago.

Most of the decline in revenue is due to broken meters and the closure of two floors of the Washington Street garage, according to Public Works Director Nate Bottom. He said that the department is removing meters in areas where they aren’t being used to replace broken meters downtown.

The parking fund is in such trouble that the proposed budget for the coming year counts on a $275,000 subsidy from the general revenue fund to “keep the (parking) fund solvent,” said Budget Director Bill McCarty. That’s $225,000 more than the $50,000 the city has been contributing for years.

Langfelder agreed the city needs to make changes, and he said he hopes to have around 200 new meters installed this spring. But it could come with a rate hike from the current 50 cents-per-hour.

“In our comparable (cities), it’s a lot more expensive,” Langfelder said. Parking fees have stayed the same, while the cost to maintain them and pay for parking enforcement have risen, he said.

The potential rate hike is a disadvantage to DSI, according to a sheet with their views on parking changes, though there is still support for the idea.

Before the City of Peoria installed new, smart meters in 2016, the city increased its per-hour-charge to $1. In Champaign, rates vary between $0.25 on the outskirts of downtown to $1.50 in the busiest shopping area.

Decatur instituted free parking in 2016, enforcing a two-hour limit with ticketing. The change has gotten mixed reviews, according to the Herald and Review , with some saying it makes downtown visits easier, while others, particularly business owners, complain that downtown workers take the prime spots.

Langfelder said he’s against the free parking idea.

“Parking meters are in place to move traffic. So that’s the whole purpose,” Langfelder said.

Downtown Springfield Inc. offered free parking, with increased ticket fines, as one of two options for changes to downtown parking. Though the group does note, a potential disadvantage is depending on meter maids to ensure people don’t stay beyond two hours.

A Solution In The Middle

Last fall, a group of students in the Sangamon CEO - an entrepreneurial program for high schoolers - took a closer look at downtown’s parking problems, at the request of the city’s economic development department.

More than 500 people answered a survey they developed. The students found similar problems to what downtown business owners observed – confusing signage, not enough information about where to park, and outdated meters.

Credit Mary Hansen / NPR Illinois
From left, Joel Niermann, Hannah Matrisch, Avia Wang and Kasra Nassirpour are Sangamon CEO students, who completed a survey and study of downtown parking.

As they visited businesses downtown, the students experienced the issues first hand. Joel Niermann, a senior at Pleasant Plains High School, recounted how early one morning last fall he drove downtown to meet the class at Willow and Birch, and parked in what was labeled a two-hour spot. But when he put the fourth quarter, the meter wouldn’t change. Later, they found the other side of the meter was labeled for an hour and a half.

“It bothered me the whole day,” Niermann said.

As they turned to solutions, the group thought they would propose more parking spots, said Avia Wang – a senior at Springfield High.

“But with the data, it was more overwhelmingly that the parking we already had was not working,” she said. “So we wanted to focus more on how to improve the meters especially because it seemed as if people were the most negatively skewed on that type of parking.”

The students recommend a website with information on where to park, and, modeled after the approach in Peoria, a parking app that accepts credit cards. Stickers on existing meters would direct people to use the app, but they could still use coins if they wish.

But would a mobile phone app leave out the less technologically savvy? Not to worry, said Hannah Matrisch, a senior at Rochester High School. The survey of Springfield visitors asked respondents if they used an app on a daily basis, and the majority said yes.

“We noticed that no matter what age group it was, overall, everyone uses their mobile apps everyday,” Matrisch said. “So that worry of someone not being able to use their phone was pushed aside.”

Kasra Nassirpour, also on the Sangamon CEO team, said they looked at other options, like kiosks.

“That’s a lot more costly, going from meters to that is a big jump,” he said. “Our solution is in the middle – it’s modern, but you’re still using the meters.”

The students hope city officials will remember their comments as the city decides on a solution.

A public hearing on downtown parking, as well as new traffic signals and one-way street conversion, is scheduled for 4 p.m. February 20th at the Lincoln Library.

Editor's Note

The following clarification has been added - The parking fund counts on a $275,000 subsidy from the general revenue fund in the proposed budget for the coming year, which is $225,000 more than the $50,000 the city had been contributing.

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