Parking meters, absent from Roanoke streets for nearly 15 years, could make a return to some downtown areas as part of testing program by the end of this year.
The city hopes to implement a 90-day pilot program with high-tech meters on streets and in surface lots in the core commercial area. The meters are part of its overall strategy to integrate its approach to on-street and off-street parking, city staff told the Roanoke City Council during a briefing Monday.
Whether the meters stay will depend on how they are received, said Assistant City Manager Brian Townsend.
“If we find there’s not general acceptance by the public,” he said, “then, no, we won’t proceed.”
Drivers likely will find meters that cover several spaces in many locations, rather than individual meters next to each space that clutter the landscape, said Parking Administrator Debbie Moses. Modern meters take cash, credit and debit cards as well as payment via smartphone technology, can alert users when their time is about to expire via text message and allow them to extend the time remotely.
City staff are working to correct what Moses describes as an upside-down parking system, where the highest-demand spaces — those on the street in the core of downtown — are free, while less popular spaces in parking garages come with a fee.
The metered spaces would be part of an attempt to provide a range of choices for downtown visitors, from parking for free on the street a few blocks from the market area to paying a little for a garage space to paying more for the premium of parking right in the heart of things.
Earlier phases of the project involved areas outside the center of downtown. About 75 new spaces were added, and in some areas the time limit for parking was increased to two hours. The hope was that some people would be willing to walk a little farther to the center of downtown in exchange for parking in a two-hour space and feeling less hurried.
So far, that hasn’t worked out, Townsend and Moses acknowledged. Moses suspects it’s not widely known that you can park for longer in those areas.
She also suspects that parking meters in the central business area will inspire people to find those longer-term free spots.
“It’s about choices,” Townsend said. “Some people will choose to pay.” Overall, the city won’t see much in the way of additional revenue, he said.
The city removed its last meters in 1999 as part of a trend in downtowns to make them more welcoming to visitors, said Dana Long, special projects coordinator in the city parking department. Now, with the immense popularity of downtown, the thought is visitors will tolerate paying for the best spaces.
Council members’ questions focused mainly on the nature of the technology that would be used.
“People will avoid it if they don’t know how to use it,” Councilman Sherman Lea warned.
“We’re still going to have people who are going to want to come downtown and put a quarter in a slot,” said Councilman Bill Bestpitch.
Townsend said he didn’t foresee ever having a cashless system, at least not in his lifetime.