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Selectboard Struggles to Solve Downtown WRJ Parking Woes



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 27, 2017

White River Junction — It’s getting harder and harder to find an open parking spot in downtown White River Junction, but town officials seemed split on Tuesday night over whether to pursue staff-presented recommendations to install parking meters and build a parking garage in the coming years.

Town staff said it would be possible to put a question on the March Town Meeting warning that would ask the public to fund an engineering study for a parking structure on the town-owned former American Legion parking lot off Main Street.

The decision is being made under time pressure from a looming expiration on the downtown’s state-approved Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, district, which captures tax revenue for the purpose of funding infrastructure improvements within the district. In order to use TIF funding, a parking structure plan would have to move forward within the next four years.

But officials said the parking structure, one of several recommendations from a $20,000 study conducted by a steering committee and an outside consultant firm, isn’t necessarily the right answer to the town’s parking woes, which parking count data show has become dramatically worse over the past three years.

“We don’t want to rush to failure,” said Town Manager Leo Pullar, who advocated moving forward with low-cost measures before paying for meters or a new structure.

Other recommendations from the work group included distributing maps to area businesses to help spread information about where the town’s 368 public parking spaces are located; better signage to signal which of those spots have two-hour time limits; and making the existing Legion lot more usable by improving its lighting, paving and striping.

During the presentation, town planner Matt Osborn, who has been conducting the parking counts for 13 years, said current and proposed development projects associated with the area’s revitalization will continue to exacerbate the situation.

“It’s starting to feel like parking occupancy is increasing at a higher rate, and with other projects coming down the pike, I’m starting to feel like it’s something that needs to be addressed,” he said.

The report found that, if available residential and commercial properties are developed at the current rate, parking usage will soon exceed 90 percent, which could make it very difficult for a customer who wants to visit downtown White River Junction and patronize a business. The counts show an average of between 60 and 70 percent occupancy for most seasons and times of day, with certain strips, such as North Main Street near the store Revolution, already sometimes filled to maximum capacity.

But Alan Johnson, a selectman and engineer who specializes in energy issues, said the town planners aren’t accounting for a societal shift that could dramatically reduce pressure on parking: the rise of ride-share services, and the advent of the self-driving car.

“Do we avoid a parking structure by ushering in a transportation revolution in our downtown?” he asked. “I’m willing to entertain the idea of a parking structure, but what do we do with all these empty parking spaces in 20 years?”

He asked whether the town could design a flexible infrastructure by, say, building a parking structure that could be easily converted to another purpose if technology does indeed lessen demand.

“What are the things we can do to kind of hedge our bets?” he asked.

Eric Bunge, who sat on the steering committee and is the operations manager of Northern Stage, said such a transformation is likely to take more time than the town has to address the problem.

“I believe in what Alan is talking about, but what I’m worried about is in 18 months, when all of those spots are occupied nearly all the time,” he said.

A firm course of action on a parking garage also could save money on short-term fixes to the American Legion lot, which Pullar said is in dire need of cosmetic improvements like lighting and resurfacing.

“It could be three four, five years before we even break ground on a lot. Folks don’t feel safe there,” he said.

Selectboard Vice Chairman Dennis Brown also expressed reluctance about adding to the town’s infrastructure.

“We can’t take care of what we have already,” he said, citing a crumbling retaining wall on Fairview Terrace. “Unless we can get it, pay for it, and have money to maintain it into the future, I would have reservations about that.”

There also was a mix of opinion about whether to install parking meters, which are being suggested for certain high-demand strips. Police Chief Phil Kasten said he favored meters, which would help people to police themselves, rather than relying on law enforcement officers to keep track of and ticket parking violators.

Selectwoman Rebecca White said she was leery about meters.

“The most common thing I hear is, ‘I really would prefer not to see parking meters,’ ” she said. “I’m very concerned that we’re going to get into a situation that we’re excited about growth, and people are going to be hesitant about coming to downtown because they don’t want to pay for parking.”

“I don’t like meters either, but I can see that they could be good in getting spots emptied out so other people can park there,” Brown said.

Selectman Mike Morris asked for a cost comparison between meters versus hiring a dedicated parking enforcement officer.

Selectman Simon Dennis said inaction isn’t an ideal option either.

“We all have had these experiences of going around the block three times,” he said. “I’ve also had the experience of business owners going up one side of me and down the other about the parking issues in the downtown.”

Selectboard members asked Pullar to move forward with the low-cost measures and to bring back more detailed information about the meters and the parking garage.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com. or 603-727-3211.