Dispute looms over Anchorage parking meter policy

A parking lot in downtown Anchorage between 6th and 7th avenues on H Street.
A parking lot in downtown Anchorage between 6th and 7th avenues on H Street. (Staff photo)

There’s a battle brewing in Anchorage over parking. It centers on a new plan to start charging at parking meters during weekends, and whether the changes will steer business in or out of the area.

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In Anchorage and elsewhere, most drivers share a common sentiment.

“Nobody likes paying for parking,” explained Brian Borguno, Parking Director for the Anchorage Community Development Authority.

ACDA controls about 6,000 parking spots in garages, surface lots, and at curbside meters. For years, the price for parking on downtown streets stayed flat, according to Borguno. Under the Berkowitz Administration, ACDA studied whether those old prices and policies still made sense.

“It’s a limited resource,” Borguno said in a phone interview. “We only have so many spaces available that are curbside in the downtown setting.”

When Borguno’s team collected data and had it independently analyzed, the results showed that about a third of the cars parked downtown on Saturdays were squatting there all day long. And that means less customers circulating through businesses in the area. Ultimately, a stakeholder group made up of property owners, restaurants, stores, and others endorsed the idea of charging at meters on Saturdays.

It is not politically popular, though, to start demanding money for a resource that’s heretofore been free. At least free on weekends. But the policy change isn’t driven by a push to raise revenues, according to Borguno. Instead, it’s about increasing the rate of parking space turn-over in front of businesses, and directing people toward lots and garages if they plan on spending longer downtown.

“When the on-street parking isn’t being managed, it limits the economic opportunity for businesses to have more customers, and the potential for people that are visiting downtown to have available space to park at the most convenient locations,” Borguno explained.

There are 1,750 meters under the control of ACDA’s control (which bear the orange “EasyPark” branding), most of which have a two-hour limit, though some allow 10 hours. Under the current plan, the city will start a pilot program on July 1st that issues warning tickets when people don’t pay at two-hour meters on Saturdays between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Essentially: Saturday parking downtown will be just like any weekday. Once August rolls around, those warning tickets will become real parking tickets.

Coming on the heels of last summer’s increase in meter rates, this is not welcomed news for Assembly Vice-Chair Forrest Dunbar.

“There was a very negative reaction from the public, including from me,” said Dunbar, who represents communities on the east side of town, far from the business district downtown.

Dunbar introduced a proposal that would bar charging for metered parking before noon on Saturdays, Sundays, or holidays. In documents filed with the Assembly, Dunbar wrote the start of metering on weekends could have “a chilling effect that could significantly impact the economy of downtown businesses.” This concern is less focused on merchants than on restaurants and bars, as well as their patrons.

“A lot of people come downtown, and then if they’ve had too much to drink they’ll leave their car and they’ll take a cab home,” explained Dunbar, who thinks that if people suspect they’ll get a ticket for leaving a car parked overnight then they are more likely to risk driving home under the influence.

“The parking people say they don’t think that’s the case. I think it’s common sense,” Dunbar added.

For people living in far-away neighborhoods, relying on cabs is an expensive option. And Dunbar doesn’t think those residents have been sufficiently consulted about the change to parking fees. His ordinance leaves the door open for charging at curbside meters after noon on Saturday’s, as a compromise on the issue.

There are no studies or data backing up the claims that DUIs will increase after a switch to metered parking on Saturdays, according to Borguno. He points out there are already limits on people parking along most downtown streets between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., particularly during winter when there is overnight snowplowing.

The issue is set to be discussed during a 1 p.m. work session at City Hall on Thursday June 15th.

Correction: an earlier version of this story misstated that Dunbar’s ordinance seeks to ban metering on evenings and Sundays.