Editorial: Parking improvements in downtown Amherst

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Thursday, September 07, 2017

At a time when Amherst is raising parking fines, the town also must get rid of faulty parking machines downtown and make sure their replacements are working properly.

The Select Board last week learned that malfunctioning pay-by-space parking kiosks downtown cost the town nearly $100,000 in lost revenue this year. As member Alisa Brewer observed, “It’s a lot of money we’re losing.”

Those “pay-by-space” machines are used in the Boltwood Garage and the lots on Main, Amity and Spring streets, as well as the lots behind Town Hall and the CVS Pharmacy. They require parkers to enter the license plate of their vehicle and the number of the space in which it is parked. Time is purchased by using cash or a credit card, and a computer in the machine displays the time remaining for any space.

The machines cost $100,000 to purchase and were installed six years ago. But they have not worked properly from the start, and the problems have worsened because the company that sold the machines to the town no longer services them. As a result, the town has been forced to buy spare parts through eBay and Craigslist.

As the town’s interim co-finance director Claire McGinnis points out, when a parking meter or machine is not working it potentially costs the town two sources of revenue, since people can’t pay for their parking and there are no violators subject to fines.

Sonia Aldrich, the town’s other co-finance director, told the Select Board that the broken machines led to transportation fund revenues falling $98,783 below the $1 million projected for the fiscal year ending June 30.

Discussion at last week’s meeting focused on the extended malfunction of a machine in the town parking lot behind CVS Pharmacy. However, Town Manager Paul Bockelman said this week that the lost revenue resulted from many of the downtown machines not always working properly. And when a faulty machine is down, parking enforcement officers are instructed not to issue tickets, he said.

The town plans to replace all the machines in question by Nov. 1, and we trust that this time the town will insist that they be thoroughly tested before they are installed and have a longer guaranteed maintenance contract.

Meanwhile, the Select Board last week also voted unanimously to increase parking tickets from $10 to $15, effective Oct. 1. That’s the first adjustment in a decade, and a sensible start to tweaking downtown parking regulations. We think that 50 percent boost in the fine will deter some violators and help achieve the goal of increased turnover in downtown parking spaces.

The Select Board delayed action on other proposals, allowing time for further study of potential changes such as creating a core area of downtown parking where the fee would be increased from 50 cents to $1 an hour; extending enforcement of meters from 6 to 8 p.m.; and standardizing most meters to four-hour limits, with the only eight-hour machines in the town-owned lot between North Pleasant and North Prospect streets.

The Downtown Parking Working Group spent more than a year crafting the recommendations it issued earlier this summer. The goal is to have about 85 percent of parking spaces occupied at any given time, ensuring that some will be available even at peak periods.

We agree with the parking group’s recommendation that hourly rates be increased from 50 cents to $1 at meters and in lots in the downtown core around the town common, Town Hall, Jones Library, post office and Boltwood area.

A new proposal brought forward by the Amherst Business Improvement District also has merit and deserves consideration. It would create a “mini-core” of a few parking spaces near the intersection of North Pleasant, South Pleasant, Amity and Main streets with a one-hour limit to encourage more rapid turnover.

Barry Roberts, president of the BID’s board of directors, said merchants support the idea as long as tickets are regularly issued to violators. “Enforcement will be important to make this work.”

The only other immediate change approved by the Select Board eliminates the on-street parking ban between Dec. 1 and April 1, unless a snow emergency is declared. That’s a common-sense measure that brings Amherst in line with other communities.

We commend Amherst officials for their thoughtful review of changes that — combined with properly working meters — should make parking less stressful for residents and visitors who want to enjoy downtown attractions.