Next week, new rules—and new fees—for parking in downtown Bellingham and Fairhaven take effect.
Paid parking will increase from $0.75 an hour to $1, parking hours will shift to a later timeframe—11 a.m. to 6 p.m.—and Saturday parking fees will begin. In Fairhaven, paid parking will exist for the first time ever.
The cost of an expired meter ticket will also increase to $30.
But as these rules take effect, it’s unclear whether anyone will be there to enforce them.
The City of Bellingham is short of parking enforcement officers. In fact, there is currently only one full-time officer to service the entirety of Bellingham, according to Bellingham Police Department (BPD) Lieutenant Claudia Murphy.
Three full-time enforcement positions are currently vacant and subject to rehiring, Murphy said, but a look at the city’s website shows these positions not listed among the city’s employment openings as of press time.
While parking enforcement is currently housed at BPD headquarters, parking officers are classified as civilian employees of the city’s public works department and not law enforcement, she added.
And although BPD patrol officers can hand out tickets for certain parking violations, including infractions in loading zones, its officers lack the necessary equipment to check the city’s digital parking kiosks for metered violations, Murphy said.
In downtown Bellingham, these digital pay stations co-exist with traditional coin-fed parking meters. This gives a driver the option of feeding the meter directly in front of the vehicle, or using a digital method of payment via kiosk or smartphone.
It could also make for some confusion, however.
A red, blinking “EXPIRED” message on a meter doesn’t necessarily mean the parking fee hasn’t been paid or the meter has run out of time, Murphy noted; the driver may have paid digitally.
Couple this with the fact that paper tickets dispensed from kiosks aren’t required as payment proof, and it’s understandable why only personnel with proper digital equipment enforce metered parking.
Until recently, the ability of the city to enforce parking seems to have been healthy.
Bellingham Municipal Court statistics show 6,595 metered parking violations in 2018, for a total of $98,925 in fines. Numbers dropped around 13% in 2019; fell off precipitously in 2020 due to effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including Washington’s stay-at-home orders that spring; and bumped back up close to 2019 levels last year.
Salish Current was not able to obtain amounts owing from the city’s finance department before press time, so not able to verify how much of these fines have actually been collected by the city.
The entirety of these fines is spent on parking-related activities and business-district beautification and enrichment, according to the city’s website. This includes everything from cleaning, landscaping and graffiti removal to events and activities like Downtown Sounds and the Commercial Street Night Market.
The 85% ideal
Bellingham City Council member Michael Lilliquist, who helped pass the new parking changes in a Feb. 7 council resolution, said the city budgeted for full staffing levels, but the current labor market—with record numbers of people retiring, resigning, and changing jobs—has affected the city just like many non-government employers.
As for parking itself, the city has operated on the concept of 85% utilization since 2008. This theory, popularized by University of California Los Angeles professor Donald Shoup’s book, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” means that at any given time in an urban space, ideal parking usage is about 85%, with about 15% unused. Theoretically, that means that at peak times a driver should be able to find at least one open spot on any given block, Lilliquist said in an email.
In Fairhaven, the Fairhaven Parking Task Force indicated parking usage had exceeded 85%, necessitating the need for paid parking to manage demand.
Lilliquist said the price of Bellingham parking—remaining unchanged since 2008—relates to the larger concept of what price level for parking best affects behavior.
“If you underprice parking, then it is overused, and availability suffers and you have excess traffic as people hunt for an opening,” he said. “If you overprice parking, then you have plenty of availability but only because you have driven people away and business suffers.”
Other methods of dealing with downtown parking issues exist, Lilliquist said, including real-time price adjusting known as “demand pricing.” This increases parking rates above normal only when usage is too high, allowing rates to stay low during non-peak hours.
Longer-term, progressive parking rates are the city’s ultimate plan, Lilliquist said. This method provides metered parking for a cheap rate in the first hour, with each additional hour increasing in price.
“This allows you to do away with parking fines altogether, which simplifies enforcement and removes a common gripe,” he said. “If you stay longer than expected, you do not get a fine. You simply get a larger bill. You pay for what you get, according to a known pay schedule.”
For now, however, residents will have to deal with the current changes.
—Reported by Matt Benoit
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