MIDDLEBURY — Downtown Middlebury possesses an abundance of downtown parking options, but locals, visitors and area workers continue to compete for “prime” spots in the Main Street area, resulting in low turnover of key spots near shops that a $5 parking fine and limited enforcement is not deterring.
That was among the key findings in a new downtown Middlebury parking study recently released by Resource Systems Group (RSG) Inc. The transportation planning firm was paid $10,000 to inventory the number of spaces in the core village area, determine the extent to which those spaces are being used and recommend what the town could do to improve overall parking conditions.
Based on the study’s findings and interviews with local officials, it appears as though Middlebury’s short-term tack will include revisiting the current $5 parking fine; promoting the peripheral downtown lots that are currently underused; and perhaps boosting the hours of the part-time parking enforcement officer.
But in the long term, some officials concede the town might have to consider some parking meters to help defray enforcement efforts and encourage a more rapid turnover of vehicles in the most sought-after spaces.
“I think this is something we will be continually monitoring,” Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington said of downtown parking trends and the potential in the future for meters.
It was Dunnington who, several months ago, spoke to the Downtown Improvement District Commission about the wisdom of a parking study to follow up on one that was performed in 1991. That study and complementary studies done by local business groups, he said, alluded to a potential shortage of spaces, a situation that Dunnington noted could get worse if and when the town and Middlebury College collaborate on a new building for business (what is being called an “economic development initiative”) on jointly owned land behind the Ilsley Library. The site in question is currently dominated by a municipal lot that has around 50 well-used spaces that would suddenly evaporate.
“Let’s have a new study, so that we aren’t just operating on anecdotal evidence that is perceived differently by different groups,” Dunnington recalled of his pitch to the Downtown Improvement District Commission. “Let’s have something that actually measures the utilization and confirms the extent of the problem or need. From there, we can talk about ideas for better (parking) management.”
That management, Dunnington said, takes on added importance given that it’s unlikely Middlebury will be able to provide an underground lot. Underground parking garages are logistically difficult to build and cost around $30,000 per space to erect, according to Dunnington, a sum that Middlebury taxpayers and/or existing merchants are not likely to endorse.
“You are talking about a huge expense,” Dunnington said of underground parking garages. “To ask a new business or development proposal to bear that, they would say, ‘Why would we come downtown when we can build in an outlying area and not have to pay that much?’”
But the RSG study indicates that there are enough downtown parking spaces to go around if people are willing to park a little further away from their respective destinations. Specifically, RSG officials found that:
• There are a total of 972 parking spots in downtown Middlebury, 452 of them public and 520 private. The study area included lots at the Marble Works complex, Frog Hollow, Bakery Lane, behind the Ilsley Library and at the municipal building, as well spots on Merchants Row, Main Street, Weybridge Street, South Main Street and other downtown tributaries.
• Prime demand for parking occurs between noon and 2 p.m., with occupancy in excess of 75 percent in the lots off Bakery Lane, behind the Ilsley Library, at the Marble Works and along Merchants Row and Main Street. There is a two-hour parking limit at most of these locations, with violators subject to a $5 parking fine. Meanwhile, spaces in the Frog Hollow municipal lot and along stretches of College, South Main and Seymour streets are often at less than 30-percent occupancy.
Possible solutions presented in the report include:
• Ask downtown employers to urge their workers to not occupy prime parking spots in front of stores and instead direct them to Frog Hollow and other under-used parking areas.
• Consider raising the parking fine from the current $5 to $20 per offense.
• Increase duty time for the traffic enforcement officer. That officer is currently on duty 25 hours per week, primarily during the months of May through October, with additional days during the Christmas shopping season.
• Evaluate the installation of parking meters at oft-occupied space at such locations as Main Street and Merchants Row.
• Do more to promote the lesser-used parking areas and advocate for shuttles to bus people from such areas to the core downtown.
Middlebury officials will spend the coming weeks evaluating the study results and deciding which recommendations to pursue.
Selectboard Chairman Dean George is pleased the study was performed and is concerned about a potential worsening of downtown Middlebury’s parking situation if the spaces behind the Ilsley Library are lost. He agrees with many of the findings and is particularly supportive of encouraging use of more remote parking areas, perhaps expanding the Frog Hollow lot, boosting enforcement and reassessing the current $5 fine.
“I agree that a $5 fine is minimal if you are going to park there all day,” George said, alluding to parking fees in Burlington and other metro areas.
He called parking meters “something we could consider way down the road, but not an immediate fix.”
Like George, Middlebury police chief Tom Hanley is not a big fan of parking meters, nor of increasing the current parking fine. Such charges, he said, could have the undesired effect of sending prospective shoppers online or elsewhere for their purchases. Meters, according to Hanley, can be expensive and tough to maintain and might not necessarily result in a turnover in spaces if the occupants simply keep feeding the meter during the course of the day. The RSG study indicates meters can cost $750-$1,500 per device, though some companies will provide and maintain the meters in return for a cut of the parking fee returns. The meters, of course, would require year-round enforcement and regular revenue collection and would discourage quick trips, according to the study.
Hanley is also concerned about the current administration of the town’s parking system, all performed by the police department. That means the enforcement, ticketing and appeals process is all handled by the department, he noted, setting up circumstances where police are spending upwards of an hour of administration for each contested $5 ticket. This is time officers could be spending on patrol, Hanley noted.
“It’s enormously time consuming,” he said. “I would like to see a different administrative approach.”
The department, Hanley said, has had some good success recently asking downtown employers to tell their workers not to park in the most desirable spaces.
A copy of the RSG study can be found on the town of Middlebury’s website, www.townofmiddlebury.org.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]