The hunt for elusive street parking on a busy evening in the Old Market could get easier, if sweeping changes proposed for the downtown parking system work as intended.
Some of the changes could save you money. Others could cost you.
Led by the recommendations of a nationwide parking consultant, city officials are considering lower rates for city-owned garage spots and low-demand parking meters.
The flip side: Meter enforcement hours could stretch into evening hours — potentially as late as 9 p.m., instead of the typical 5 p.m. weekday cutoff.
Drivers also might have to pay to park at meters on Saturdays. Currently, parking at downtown meters is free on weekends.
Supporters of the proposals say such changes are needed to rehabilitate a downtown parking system that can be inconvenient at its best moments and downright inefficient at its worst.
While dozens of cars burn gas in search of free on-street parking on a typical Friday night in the Old Market, open spots at nearby city-owned garages sit empty.
"Our system is just broken," said City Traffic Engineer Todd Pfitzer. "The highest demand spots are free, and the lowest demand ones cost the most. It's completely backwards."
City Council members have been briefed on the consultant's report, which was paid for by the city and other interested parties, including the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, the Omaha Downtown Improvement District Association, the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
The City of Omaha put $15,000 toward the roughly $84,500 study, said Joe Gudenrath of the downtown improvement district.
Under its recommendations, high-demand parking meters in the Old Market could jump to $2 or more per hour, if credit card readers are installed and restrictions on the length of time people can stay at the same meter are relaxed.
Frequent parking violators also could face higher parking ticket fines.
The consultant stressed the need for the city to consolidate all parking operations within the Public Works Department and to hire a full-time parking manager and small support staff.
Management of the city's parking system currently is fragmented. Curbside meters (which generated $1.5 million in gross revenue in 2010, much of it downtown) are maintained and overseen by the Public Works Department.
Garages, on the other hand, fall under the Parks and Recreation Department's golf division.
The study found that in 2010 city-owned garages lost $206,349 after $2.4 million was put toward debt service payments. Surplus parking meter revenues are forwarded to the city's general fund to help offset garage losses.
City parking revenues, the consultants said, need a "consistent and continual watchdog."
The firm, Walker Parking Consultants, examined an area bounded by Cuming Street on the north, the Missouri River to the east, Leavenworth Street to the south and 24th Street on the west.
Of the roughly 41,000 parking spots in that area, approximately 19,200 are available for public use.
Overall, the consultants said, only 54 percent of available parking in the Old Market is used on a busy evening. But demand for on-street spots far exceeds supply.
The city owns seven garages in the downtown area. There are also more than a dozen privately run garages in downtown.
The consultants estimated that the city's garages account for roughly 15 percent of downtown's off-street parking. Yet Old Market garages don't see enough use during busy weekends.
Pfitzer said parking meters should be only 85 percent occupied, at most. Instead, finding a spot at peak times in the Old Market can seem impossible.
The consultants found "a significant percentage of the Old Market's traffic may consist of drivers spending several minutes trying their luck in finding on-street parking before giving up and parking in one of the paid lots or nearby parking garages, if the drivers are aware of these options."
Said Pfitzer: "The purpose of metered parking is to generate turnover. When you never have any open stalls, you are not satisfying that need."
Gudenrath said officials may not follow all of the consultant's suggestions, but they'll provide a road map for future changes.
"The current system doesn't function the way a parking system should," he said.
Pfitzer said the changes aren't motivated by a desire to create additional revenue for the city.
"Our biggest single goal, as far as the user is concerned, is to create a system that gives them a choice and gives them availability," he said.
If such changes generated new revenue, Pfitzer said, the city would work to invest the money back into improvement projects in the area.
Changes to downtown parking rules could not happen overnight. Some of the proposals could require City Council approval.
But, Gudenrath said: "The sooner, the better."
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