Editorial: Parking changes in Amherst need careful review

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Amherst Select Board on Monday smartly delayed a decision on 13 proposals to improve downtown parking. There’s a lot to consider in the package, and it makes sense to give town officials, the business community and residents plenty of time to offer their opinions.

The Downtown Parking Working Group has spent more than a year crafting the recommendations. Some are relatively simple measures such as installing clearer signs and improving public education about where to find parking and how to pay for it. Others, such as extending the enforcement time on downtown meters from 6 to 8 p.m., already have generated opposition.

The Select Board will likely consider the most controversial proposals Aug. 28, allowing six weeks to hear from the public.

The latest study of parking in downtown Amherst started with three forums in 2014 and 2015. The working group was appointed in 2016, following a recommendation in a parking report issued by Jeffrey Bagg, then the town’s senior planner. Its members are Chairwoman Connie Kruger, Wendy Jones Boisseau, Catharine Porter, Sarah la Cour, Rabib Rafiq, Richard Roznoy and Matt Yee.

Among the tools used in compiling the recommendations is a parking assessment and analysis conducted by Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates of Boston, which “concluded that the total number of parking spaces — public and private — in the town center is currently adequate to meet demand; however, the highly desirable and visible parking areas meet or exceed functional capacity during peak times (1 p.m. and 7 p.m.). Their recommendation was to make the current system more efficient using demand-based pricing before considering longer-term solutions such as a parking structure.”

Kruger says the goal is to find the right balance so that 85 percent of spaces are occupied at any given time, ensuring that some will be available even at peak periods downtown.

The issues include how much to charge, the length of time that motorists vehicles may legally park their vehicle on one space and the hours of enforcement. It makes sense to give parkers some choices depending on their proximity to the main business district.

We agree with the parking group’s recommendation that hourly rates at meters and in lots be increased from 50 cents to $1 in the downtown core around the town common, Town Hall, Jones Library, post office and Boltwood areas. That change would apply the higher rate to about 600 spaces, while another 175 on the outskirts of downtown would remain at 50 cents.

According to the parking group, a survey conducted by Nelson\Nygaard “found the price of parking was not an issue or deterrent from using downtown; rather availability and time duration were key factors in deciding where and how to park. The DPWG also discovered through their members and others that many employees (of downtown businesses) feed the meter and occupy valuable spaces within the core. The thought is that increasing rates will discourage this type of meter feeding, while encouraging employees to take advantage of the town center parking permit system.”

An earlier proposal to increase the annual fee from $25 to $200 for those permits which may be purchased by residents and downtown employees was dropped after business owners raised objections. That’s a smart decision because the permits are a reasonably priced alternative to meter feeding.

We also see merit in the proposal to change the parking duration from a variety of limits to a maximum of four hours in all spaces, except for the town-owned lot on North Prospect Street behind CVS Pharmacy that would remain at eight hours. That should reduce confusion over which lots allow longer parking and address complaints that a two-hour limit “discourages visitors from going to the Amherst Cinema or having dinner downtown because of the risk of getting a ticket or having to feed the meter at an inconvenient time.”

Changes such as adding a mobile payment option and updating parking kiosks to accept credit cards are welcome because they take advantage of developing technology.

Another recommendation we support would bring Amherst in line with other communities, including Northampton, by eliminating the winter on-street parking ban between Dec. 1 and April 1. Instead, overnight parking would be allowed throughout the winter except when a snow emergency is declared.

The Downtown Parking Working Group has brought forward a comprehensive series of proposals to improve downtown parking that deserve thoughtful review by the Select Board, other town officials and the public.