Lehigh Valley

Consultant urges Bethlehem to hike meter rates, fines

Replacement of Walnut St. parking garage urged

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - A parking study suggests the city of Bethlehem should increase on-street metered parking rates and fines for parking violations and institute a policy for regular rate hikes in the North and South sides’ downtown districts.

The recommendations were made by Desman Design Management, which was hired to perform a review and evaluation of public parking in the two business districts by the Bethlehem Parking Authority last year. Specifically the company was instructed to analyze parking supply and demand in both quadrants. The company revealed their rate hike conclusions during a public meeting held at Town Hall on Thursday night.

Tim Tracy, executive vice president at the firm, explained the recommendations.

Increase on-street metered parking rates: Desman said hourly parking rates at on-street meters is equal to the hourly rate in off-street facilities. As such, Tracy said, there is no financial incentive for those parking longer-term to park off-street. The principle behind charging a higher per-hour rate for on-street parking is to increase the turnover of on-street spaces. That, he said, will increase the likelihood that a space will be available when the next automobile seeking to park arrives.

In addition, the study found that the on-street hourly parking rate has not been increased since 2012. The move would generate more than $250,000 for the Authority annually, according to the group's report.

Increase fines for parking violations: The current rate for a meter parking violation is $10. Tracy said that figure is half of the $20 average fine imposed by comparable municipalities. Based on industry best practices, Desman recommends the city hike that rate by $5, to a fine of $15. The report further recommends that the $5 increase should be also be applied to all other parking violations. This has to be done to account for the rising cost of operating and then enforcing parking regulations in Bethlehem, the report said.

The move would generate more than $400,000 for the Authority annually, according to the group's report.

Institute a policy of regular rate increases: Desman reached the conclusion that "the costs associated with operating and maintaining a parking system are substantial and increase consistently over time due to inflationary pressure." However, parking rate and fine increases often do not occur frequently enough to keep pace with rising operating costs. This is a particular problem for the Bethlehem Parking Authority given the substantial debt obligation the organization has and the ongoing capital needs of the parking system.

To make sure BPA can meet its obligations and maintain the system, Desman recommended that regular rate and fine increases should be implemented as a matter of policy. The report notes this policy "should apply not only to the transient and monthly rates in the BPA's off-street public parking facilities, but also to the fine for parking violations and the on-street parking rates."

The group's report could not estimate the revenue impact for BPA.

In addition to these recommendations, Desman also called for an expanded use of license plate recognition technology for increased enforcement. The BPA already uses license plate recognition (LPR) technology to enforce parking time limits and meter feeding activity, but the consultant said an opportunity exists to increase its use in the future by using license plate numbers to identify on-street permit holders. This could replace the existing sticker system and moving to pay-by-plate in its off-street facilities that offer transient parking, the report said.

Desman also recommended in the report that the BPA use the technology to monitor and enforce monthly parking in its non-gated parking facilities.

The report also made some major future capital replacement and development recommendations, chief among them being the demolition and reconstruction of the Walnut Street Garage on the North Side.

Tracy estimated this would cost about $20 million.

BPA is also considering building a parking garage on the South Side next to Northampton Community College on Third and Polk streets. 

None of the recommendations have been endorsed at this stage by the BPA or the city.

Tracy said that, during the course of conducting their study, public input was received. Here are some of those highlights:

  • Concern among respondents that an actual or perceived lack of parking could inhibit infill of existing buildings and even circumvent new development.
  • Several business owners said their interactions with BPA could use improvement, specifically as it relates to how the BPA communicates changes to the system or operation.
  • Patrons of businesses and restaurants in the North Side prefer not to park in the parking garages because in their estimation they are "dirty" and they "feel unsafe."
  • Concerns about how the existing parking demand would be handled if or when the Walnut Street Garage is demolished.
  • Parking is too expensive. Some respondents said meter rates are too expensive for customers, while other thought monthly rates are too expensive for employees and business owners.

It was the last point that prompted one audience member to make a comment. A man, who did not identify himself, noted Desman's own findings indicate some of the public said parking is already too expensive, In spite of that, Desman wants to see the rates go higher.

"So," the man said. "you asked our opinions, and then you ignore them."

BPA paid out $69,800 for the Desman's study. The Authority will use it to guide their decision-making.

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