Orange County

Pay to park in Carrboro? Why the town will take a closer look

Chapel Hill replaced these parking meters after visitors and residents complained how they were difficult to use and hard to read in bright sunlight. Electronic parking meters could be an option for Carrboro if the town adopts a payment system.
Chapel Hill replaced these parking meters after visitors and residents complained how they were difficult to use and hard to read in bright sunlight. Electronic parking meters could be an option for Carrboro if the town adopts a payment system. Staff photo

People driving into Carrboro for a show at Cat’s Cradle or a trip to the Farmers Market don’t have to worry about paying to park for now.

The town does want to learn more about how paid parking might work, but that doesn’t mean it’s a done deal, Alderwoman Jacqueline Gist said.

“I am a little bit disturbed that there seems to be an underlying assumption that we’re going to end up charging for parking,” Gist said at Tuesday’s Board of Aldermen meeting. “I want to make sure that the people doing the study understand that this board and this community are not saying, yeah, we want to charge for parking regardless of what everybody said.”

Residents and business owners asked whether Carrboro has enough downtown parking a few years ago, prompting a townwide study.

Recent developments, including a planned library at 203 S. Greensboro St. and the expiration in 2021 of a parking deck lease with 300 East Main, owners of the shopping center housing The ArtsCenter and Cat’s Cradle music club, have amplified the concerns.

The board broached the topic again this spring, asking staff to consider options that included enforcement of existing parking limits, the possibility of a paid system, and whether the town should build a parking deck.

While some businesses, such as Japanese restaurant Akai Hana and Auto Logic, share parking, there wasn’t a lot of support for that option, said Annette Stone, community and economic development director.

Stone returned Tuesday with a recommendation that the town pay up to $48,000 for a consultant to study the issues. The aldermen will decide whether to hire one at a future meeting. A draft report is possible by January, she said.

0116-artscenter-203 South Greensboro
This town-owned parking lot at 203 S. Greensboro St. in Carrboro will be the future home of Orange County’s Southern Branch Library, town Recreation and Parks offices, and a number of smaller civic groups. Tammy Grubb

Parking information needed

The town owns 655 parking spaces — about 16 percent of what’s available downtown — according to the 2017 Downtown Parking Plan. It also leases private parking, including 150 daytime spaces and 250 nighttime spaces at the Hampton Inn. The new library could add more parking to the 85-space lot at 203 S. Greensboro St. when it opens.

The report concluded the town won’t need to build or lease more parking for at least the next decade, but it could use what it has more efficiently with signs, parking agreements and enforcement. Over 60 percent of businesses, residents and others surveyed had a negative view of paying to park, it stated.

But the study didn’t answer some key questions, Gist said, including how many downtown business employees use the public parking lots. A new study also should address what residents who don’t live downtown think, since they most likely would be affected by a paid parking system, she and others said.

Alderman Sammy Slade suggested looking beyond what’s being done in North Carolina.

“I think that we do ourselves a disservice to be a progressive community and think of ourselves as the most progressive in North Carolina and limit ourselves to what other places in North Carolina are doing. I think we can do better, not just by looking at other places outside of North Carolina within the United States, but even globally.”

Parking deck, paid parking

The Federal Highway Administration identified two approaches to pricing for public parking in its 2017 primer: a traditional free or fixed-price system, and a newer, performance-based pricing system. The cost to park in a performance-based lot can vary based on its location or the time of day, or the cost can escalate if cars remain parked for a longer period of time.

A performance-based system lets cities better manage parking, especially with electronic meters, phone apps and license plate recognition technology.

A good pricing system also can reduce congestion caused by drivers circling a downtown area to find parking near their destination, according to a Mayors Innovation Project report on urban parking.

The urban parking report noted that drivers will spend about eight minutes looking for a free, on-street parking space, even if low-cost parking is available in a nearby surface lot. It suggested charging more for parking near businesses to discourage long-term use and help other drivers find an open space.

One option for Carrboro could be a split system that charges for some lots but not for others. In that case, it will be important to know how the town can ensure people don’t just park in the free lots, Mayor Lydia Lavelle said.

A parking deck can cost up to $24,000 per space to build, compared with up to $10,000 per space for a surface lot, according to the 2017 report. The cost depends on the cost of land, topography, utilities, and other factors, such as labor and materials.

The annual operations and maintenance costs also can be higher for a parking deck — averaging $200 to $800 per space.

The town isn’t likely to build a parking deck without some sort of paid parking to support it, Lavelle said.

“This is all information that will be really important to us, because it’s not just a big decision about the future of parking in our town, but if we go forward with some kind of structured parking, that’s a huge financial commitment, and we have to be smart about how we would do that,” she said.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.