Parallel Barking

Even as officials try to improve downtown parking, critics snarl at the meters and fees.

If you think driving is a nuisance in Tucson, once you reach your destination you still have to park. And trying to do that downtown is enough to make you prefer prowling the suburban strip malls, according to distressed merchants.

"The present parking system is hurting downtown business in a big way," says Terry Etherton, an art gallery owner in the area for 20 years. "It's ludicrous to have meters in front of vacant buildings. There is something wrong with that picture."

Etherton is especially critical of the 30-minute meters found primarily along Sixth and Stone avenues. "You can't eat lunch, you can't do anything in 30 minutes," he says. "Customers keep looking at their watches to make sure they have time to go feed the meter. With all the talk of revitalizing downtown, this is a negative message that is ridiculous."

Chris Leighton, the city's parking program coordinator, takes a different view. "The main reason for the meters," he says, "is to force parking turnover. Without them it would be impossible to enforce two-hour restrictions without a lot of manpower, which we don't have."

Etherton, however, dislikes employing meters to determine parking violations. In his opinion, "A better use of resources than creating ill-will for the city would be to mark tires instead. It would bring more people downtown and be more business-friendly."

As for the 30-minute meters found in front of Etherton's gallery on Sixth Avenue near Broadway Boulevard, Leighton says the nearby post office requested them. He wants to talk to Etherton about the issue. "We can probably work on it," he suggests.

But Leighton insists the biggest concern he hears about parking downtown is that there isn't enough of it. Plus, he says, "I still get complaints from businesses about people feeding meters. We still have to have turnover [to provide parking] for government offices and businesses."

To address the downtown parking issue in a comprehensive fashion, four years ago the city initiated TEAM, the Transportation Enterprise Area Management program. "The basic premise of the TEAM concept," according to a city document, "is that parking revenues should be reinvested back into services for the areas from which they are generated."

One of the goals for the program is "to maximize revenue to support desired programs." So after the TEAM program began, meter rates rose, along with a substantial hike in parking fines.

Today, those two sources of revenue make up a major portion of the program's almost $2 million annual budget. TEAM generates close to $400,000 for itself from meters, with another $245,000 going to the city's general fund. It also receives $225,000 a year from parking citations, with some of the remainder going to the general fund and a whopping 44 percent surcharge paid to the State of Arizona.

Other TEAM revenues come from renting spaces in downtown parking garages and lots, from various residential parking-permit programs scattered around the downtown and university areas, and from miscellaneous sources.

Thanks to all this money, TEAM keeps two to four people on the street enforcing the city's parking regulations with fines that Etherton thinks "are way out of line. People are terrified of the fines."

While parking agents normally write 50,000 tickets a year, because of a shortage of staff, last fiscal year only 38,000 citations were issued: 20,000 $20 fines for expired meters, over 12,000 $30 tickets for violations of the neighborhood parking permit programs, another 5,000 safety-related fines that cost $100, and 500 tickets for $500 for infractions of disabled parking restrictions.

Leighton insists the size of these fines was not set to generate more revenue for TEAM but to insure that the city's general fund didn't suffer as a result of the state surcharge. "Our goal," he says, "is to eventually get out of the ticket business because it will be so easy to park downtown."

TO ACCOMPLISH THAT, team is working on a number of projects aimed at reinvigorating downtown's anemic retail sector. "The key is to develop enough off-street parking," Leighton says. "The TEAM idea is to push employees out to the edges to open up the core area for short-term parkers."

In order to achieve that goal, the program recently opened a temporary rental lot at Congress Street and I-10. By next spring it hopes to develop another 300-space surface lot just west of Stone Avenue near the railroad tracks.

After that, Leighton optimistically predicts that within three years a 600- to 800-space garage will be completed on Pennington Street at the site of the long-abandoned but not yet demolished City Hall annex. The proposal calls for retail stores along the ground floor with parking above, and Leighton says the city is considering involving the private sector in constructing the project.

Other longer-term parking possibilities include a new garage at the corner of Sixth and Toole avenues and an addition to the existing city/state facility west of City Hall. But Leighton says the former project depends on federal funding, and there are no immediate plans to implement the latter.

Along with planning more off-street parking, the TEAM program operates downtown's free shuttle system, called TICET. After a slow start last summer, the system's three routes carried almost 100,000 riders in its first year, 16,000 of them in August. Eventually, plans call for extending the service to Fourth Avenue and the University of Arizona campus.

But Terry Etherton thinks something should be done now about the current parking situation downtown. "There must be a solution between getting rid of the meters and the current nazi mentality," he says in obvious frustration.

WHILE PEOPLE LIKE Etherton criticize the city's TEAM program, another parking issue has received much less attention. To reflect the greater use of smaller cars in our society, almost a decade ago the City of Tucson reduced the size of parking spaces to 8.5-by-18 feet.

In the last 10 years, of course, vehicles have gotten much larger, turning some parking lots into bumper-car like facilities as people try to maneuver their SUVs, pickups and vans through a tight maze of narrow aisles and skinny spaces. The city, however, has no plans to reconsider the size requirement.

Pima County's zoning ordinance was never changed to reduce parking space size, so it still has 9-by-20-foot spaces on the books. The county, however, is looking to make some alterations to its parking regulations.

One possibility would allow a new development to reduce the required number of spaces if the developer submits an individual parking plan justifying the reduction. Another proposed change could more than triple the number of trees required to be placed in a parking lot.

Both of these ideas are expected to take final form by the end of the year.