By Shawn Regan
---- — Mayor James Fiorentini said he has not yet decided whether to support a proposed hike in downtown parking fees and hours.
Before deciding whether to support the increases, Fiorentini said he plans to talk to residents who live downtown and merchants there. He said he will also hold a meeting of his parking commission to get input from members.
“The administration isn’t ready to support or reject any of the recommendations at this time,” said the mayor’s aide, David Van Dam.
The mayor has to bring any changes before the City Council, which would make a final decision.
The city’s parking consultant has recommended the increases. Jason Schreiber of Nelson/Nygaard said the five-month-old paid parking program has gotten off to a good start for the most part, but that revenue collections for a private company running the program are coming up short.
He said more importantly, allowing free street parking in the morning and afternoon has prevented the program from opening up as many prime parking spots near restaurants and other businesses as intended.
Haverhill received a $100,000 up-front payment from SP Plus Municipal Services based on paid parking generating $250,000 by the end of this month and $400,000 by the end of its first year. However, collections total $175,000 so far and are projected to reach only $275,000 by the end of the first year, Schreiber said.
If the city doesn’t hit the benchmarks, it will get less money than expected from SP Plus over the course of its three-year contract with the company, officials said.
Schreiber said the program could still hit the benchmarks by raising the parking fee from 50 cents per hour to 75 cents or $1 per hour. He also recommended starting the paid program earlier — at 10 a.m. rather than 3 p.m. — on the downtown’s main streets.
Currently, street parking is free and limited to two hours from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Washington, Essex, Granite and Wingate streets. Drivers pay 50 cents per hour from 3 to 8 p.m. on those streets.
In city lots and the Merrimack Street garage, drivers pay 50 cents per hour to park or can buy $15-per-month permits reserved for people who live or work downtown. The paid program there is Monday through Friday.
Schreiber recommended raising the cost of lot and garage permits to $30 per month or even $50 per month for the busy Wingate Street lot. He also suggested extending paid parking to 9 p.m. and making street parking and nighttime more expensive than lot parking and daytime parking.
Overall, Schreiber said the program is working as designed and that more people are parking downtown now than before the city started charging Aug. 1. However, he said too many people are using prime spaces on the street because those spaces are free during times when drivers must park in the lots. He said increasing the fee for street parking will lead to more turnover of street spaces that are most convenient for customers of restaurants, shops and other businesses.
The paid program is designed to dissuade long-term parking by people such as commuters who ride the train and those who live and work downtown from parking for hours at a time in the heart of the business district. Instead, the city wants them to park in public lots and on roads at the edge of downtown, such as Bailey Boulevard, where parking is free.
Schreiber said the program has made parking much more available in the downtown’s public lots and the city garage on Merrimack Street. It also has led to greater use of the new parking garage near the downtown train station. Parking in that garage, which opened last year, has increased from less than 30 percent before paid parking to more than 50 percent now, Schreiber said.
Public Works Director Michael Stankovich, who is the city’s point man on paid parking, said money from the program has been used to sweep and clean the Merrimack Street garage more often and to install better lighting and signs throughout the downtown.