Galveston voters should be inclined to support most of the recommendations announced last week and meant to improve the city’s fee-based parking system along Seawall Boulevard.
There’s one exception, however, that city leaders should think through completely before including it on a ballot.
The Seawall Parking Ad Hoc Committee on Thursday recommended a rate increase from $1 to $2 an hour with a minimum two-hour charge along Seawall Boulevard as part of its review of the seawall parking program.
The city council last month tasked the committee with studying the parking system before asking voters to reauthorize it in a referendum to be held as soon as May.
Voters approved the $1 an hour charge in 2011 on the condition money would be used for seawall improvements such as restrooms and bus stops.
Increasing the hourly rate is an essential reform because it would bring in more money for needed seawall improvements.
The problem with the $1 an hour fee is that people tend to pay it, even when they stay for much longer than an hour. They just use cellphones to extend the time hour after hour. Each transaction costs the city 25 cents.
So, every time somebody buys an hour of parking, the city gets only 75 cents. Over four hours, for example, at an hour a time the city gets $3 and the vendor gets $1. If the visitor pays for four hours, the city gets $3.75 and the vendor gets a quarter. If a person buys eight hours, the city gets $7.75 and the vendor gets a quarter.
The main beneficiary of the $1 minimum isn’t some microscopic population of people who can afford a car and gas for it but have only a buck to park, it’s the vendor processing the transactions.
Because of the original ballot language, the city can’t raise the minimum even 25 cents to cover that overhead.
We agree with city leaders who’ve advocated that the minimum transaction should be four hours, but a two-hour minimum is a reasonable compromise that voters should support.
Two committee members summed it well at a meeting last week:
“Downtown Galveston, we are all paying $1.75 to park,” Dennis Byrd Jr. said. “There’s more traffic on the seawall than downtown. It’s the number-one reason we come to Galveston.”
“This just helps us put more money toward what beach parking is for,” City Marshal Michael Gray said.
The bottom line is a $1 minimum is far below what the market will bear and serves a population that’s mostly hypothetical.
The committee also recommended raising the cost of annual passes from $25 to $45. That recommendation needs a harder look.
While most committee members supported the annual pass increase, Susan Fennewald worried Galvestonians won’t be willing to pay so much.
“I think that’s too much,” Fennewald said. “On a summer weekend, I think that’s fine, but the rest of the time, I think that’s too much.”
Fennewald is right, although for a slightly different reason.
She didn’t want the fees to be a burden to residents, she said.
Increasing the annual permit price to $45 wouldn’t be an actual burden; it works out to $3.75 a month. It’s high enough to create a perception of a burden, however, and would give opponents of parking fees a single, simple point to rally around.
The main argument against charging any fees in the first place was that doing so would burden the resident population. Before the initial referendum, opponents demanded an exemption from the fees for Galveston residents, which state law wouldn’t allow.
The annual pass was created to give residents a special deal. The pass is available to everyone, residents or not, but people who live here are far more likely to buy one than are visitors.
The question is whether the potential revenue in increasing the price of annual passes is enough to justify the ill will it might create among the local voters who’ll decide whether the program continues or ends.
We doubt it is.
The city should focus on the real money, which is in the hourly fees, and leave the annual passes alone.
• Michael A. Smith