Casper City Council moved away from metering certain downtown streets after a lengthy discussion during its Oct. 22 work session.
The conversation picked up where the council left off last month, when they began looking at implementing action items from a 2018 Urban Center Parking Plan. Among those action items was the installation of parking meters downtown.
The council has been split on the topic. The main issue being raised is the idea that if a customer can’t park directly in front of a business, they won’t visit it. If that’s the case, low parking turnover directly affects the city’s economic success.
There are two-hour parking limits downtown, but Casper Police Chief Keith McPheeters said enforcement of that limit is labor intensive and inefficient, particularly with the department as understaffed as he said it currently is. Parking meters would help enforce those limits, he said.
The 2018 parking study analyzed parking turnover on select streets and found that the average driver stayed in a given parking spot for 86 minutes and each parking spot saw an average of 5.6 cars per day. Whether that’s an adequate amount of turnover or whether the city needs to intervene to increase those figures was essentially the conversation Casper’s lawmakers had Oct. 22.
They ultimately decided to take a few preemptive steps to improve the situation instead of moving on the meters. Council decided to try to leverage the downtown parking garage instead. They asked city staff to look at the financial impact of making the garage free for four hours and lowering the cost to park for those who work downtown.
The hope is more people using the garage will free up street parking for shoppers.
The city has been trying to steer people toward the garage for some time, which is free for the first two hours of parking. But that hope relies on people being willing to walk an extra block or two to their destination, something many have said people aren’t willing to do. Powell suggested trying to incentivize the parking garage by randomly rewarding drivers who park there or subsidizing garage parking for those who work downtown.
“Downtown merchants fear we will disincentivize going downtown,” Powell said.
The trouble is balancing that concern with the enforcement and turnover problems. Some council members, like Kenneth Bates and Shawn Johnson, have said it’s not really a council issue at all and should be left to the businesses to figure out.
Amid the discussion, McPheeters suggested another potential alternative to the pay-to-park option. He said the police department could purchase a license plate reader, affix it to a vehicle, and have a community service officer enforce parking that way. It would be more efficient than the current enforcement method. It would also eliminate the need for meters, he said, but it would be an investment.
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Before the council allocates any money for any of these options, however, it has asked to hear about options to increase use of the parking garage. Based on that report, the council may decide to revisit the meters or one of the other suggestions offered, but at the moment, meters have been taken off the table.
The last time Casper had metered downtown parking was 1992, according to Star-Tribune reporting from that time.
The meters were removed to stop employees of downtown businesses from playing “musical cars” and moving from parking spot to parking spot every two hours to not be fined, according to the 1992 reports.
At the time, there was reportedly less free parking around the city’s downtown. When the city removed the parking meters it also designated a free parking lot. Now, more than two decades later, the city’s proposal to reinstitute parking meters would in part seek to address the same issue removing them was meant to solve — the difference being that there is now an abundance of unused free and affordable parking downtown.
The parking issue isn’t just about being able to find a place to pull over downtown, according to the study. Rather, it’s one piece in the evolving picture of the city’s core. The conversation being had now was only a matter of time.
When the council set formal goals for itself at the start of this year, implementing the parking study was among them. It was identified as a way to “enhance the attractiveness of the community for business and workforce development.” City Council set a goal to explore parking meters as an option by August 2019 and, given council approval, implement meters by September 2021.
The parking plan was listed alongside a slew of infrastructure projects council plans to tackle in the coming years. Those additional projects include the ongoing North Platte River restoration, a portion of which is currently underway along the First Street reach of the river; improving pedestrian access to businesses, “recreational segments” and “population centers” by 2022; providing high-speed internet infrastructure for all businesses by 2022; and a list of other goals.
The revisiting of the parking study also coincides with a separate city project to add and improve wayfinding signage around the Casper area, facilitated by the Casper Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. Council saw a presentation about that project Tuesday night as well.
The planning organization is contracting with Des Moines, Iowa-based RDG Planning and Design to complete the project, which is anticipated to cost $100,000 — money the planning organization has already set aside.
Ryan Peterson, a partner with RDG, gave the council a tentative idea Tuesday night of what the signage may look like. He said the goal is to create a unified sign system throughout the region “so as they find their way, they know that they are here, that they are home.”
The idea is that the signs will clearly guide visitors around the area, while giving residents a sense of place. Where exactly the signs will go is still being decided, but the tentative plan is to guide people toward key points in and around the city, including historic places and recreational options.
The project includes analysis of residents’ most traveled places. Public survey results put Casper Mountain at the top of the list, with downtown not far behind. Thinking about where people travel within the community will help when decisions about placement and coordination of the signs are being made, Peterson said.
The planning organization is still working out details and has been asking for public feedback on design elements like graphics, colors and shapes for the signs. The firm working with the planning organization on the project will come back in the fall with a more complete report based on the public feedback received.
When the project is finally implemented, it will complement the city’s overall transportation and traffic goals.
Follow local government reporter Morgan Hughes on Twitter @morganhwrites