To the Editor of Planet Princeton:
As the Princeton Council president, but speaking only for myself, I would like to provide some explanation for the problems with the new downtown parking system and to respond to some of the issues that have been raised in letters and in comments on this website and on social media.
The new parking meter rollout has been a rocky road, and I want to assure residents and visitors that the municipality is working to fix problems and that we will consider adjustments at our Jan. 14 Council meeting (7 p.m. at 400 Witherspoon Street).
Firstly I want to address the criticism that decisions were made without public input. The fact is that decisions around parking were made in public meetings with multiple chances for residents and stakeholders to participate. The implementation of consultant recommendations was discussed at 10 council meetings. In addition, the mayor and council members met with members of the business community to discuss the parking changes at six meetings. Those meetings were in addition to regular monthly economic development committee meetings, where parking was on the agenda between March and November.
It’s clear that even the most robust public engagement campaigns don’t reach everyone and that the changes took many by surprise. This was not council’s intent. Going forward, residents can find up to date parking information on the municipal website’s parking operation page and our social media accounts.
I’ve also been hearing that it seems as though the council did not have goals and there was no rationale for the changes. But when we embarked on the process in 2016, the council had clear goals, chief among them enhancing the economic vibrancy of downtown. In short, we wanted to: 1) update parking technology to make paying for parking easier, because the parking infrastructure and existing Smart Card technology was near its expiration 2) adjust timing and pricing to optimize availability for the benefit of residents and visitors patronizing downtown, and 3) realize additional non-tax revenue to pay for the parking infrastructure and to supplement the general budget to pay for improvements to roads and sidewalks with non-tax revenue.
Also, some believe the placement of short and long-term meters was done arbitrarily without considering the interest of businesses. The reality is that the placement and timing of meters was done according to the locations of current retail establishments. However, we are open to making changes if we didn’t get it right. At our next meeting, we are voting on adjustments to the meters on Witherspoon Street below the Arts Council from short term to all-day meters. We are working with the New Jersey Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over Nassau Street, to make changes on that street.
As for the policy decision about meter hours and the grace period, we adjusted meter hours to make them more uniform and to conform to the hours of businesses. The decision to charge for parking on Sundays was made in 2009, and the council did not see a reason to revisit that decision. The old Princeton parking meters included a short grace period at the end of a parking session, which was implemented by a previous administrator and was not codified in municipal ordinances. Since it was not universally known by residents and was not publicized to visitors, the grace period was not included in the parking ordinance recently adopted by the council. I do not favor grace periods such as these because they reward non-compliance and they are basically unfair unless everyone knows about them. That said, the council may open the discussion of the grace period issue its meeting on Jan. 14.
Another issue troubling residents and visitors is that there was a reduction in the number of parking spaces downtown. This is regrettable but it was unavoidable. Sixteen spaces were removed because they were too close to crosswalks and in violation of state law. Six spaces were removed as part of a contemporaneous planning board approval to transform the former Palmer Square Post Office into a restaurant, which will include a new entrance facing the street. The reuse of the parking spaces as a loading zone is needed to accommodate the expected passenger and delivery activities. One space on Park Place was removed as part of mediation of a dispute over private property.
We are also confronting the problem of loading zones being abused. The council is working with business owners to address the problem, which stems in part from an informal arrangement that was made long ago under which some businesses were given permits to park in loading zones. Since it turns out that many businesses rely on this program, the council is working to change it in a way that is the least disruptive to businesses and yet is fair for businesses that were not here when the arrangement was made.
Perhaps what has been most annoying for people are the operational problems with the meters. The problem with coins jamming has been resolved for the most part. The meter company had delayed delivery of collection canisters by one week; as the new meters have smaller coin containers, this resulted in the coin boxes being full sooner and the parking staff had no means to empty the coins. This situation has been fixed and collections are on track.
The lighting problems with the meters, making them hard or impossible to use at night without a flashlight, are more vexing. I do not have an entirely satisfactory answer to this one, but we are pressing the meter company to solve it. Apparently the meters we are using are used elsewhere in many communities without problems.
We are also working with the mobile app vendor to fix glitches that have been reported. We plan to revisit our decision to create a Princeton-branded app and we are exploring the possibility of making an additional app available.
Personally, regarding the increased parking rates, I want to emphasize that my views are not uniformly shared by the rest of the governing body. I believe charging a relatively high fee for parking is an important step we need to make to address climate change. There is no more effective way to reduce Princeton’s overall vehicle emissions, which is a goal of our climate action plan. Parking, including private parking for one’s personal vehicle, parking for employees of private businesses, as well as parking by visitors on our streets, is a cost of owning a vehicle; that cost should not be paid-for or subsidized by those who do not drive. The truth is that expensive parking disincentivizes driving and by logical correlation, free and low cost parking incentivizes driving.
As we move forward, we are going to have to balance the existential threat of climate change with the impact of policy decisions that encourage alternative forms of transportation, which some fear will negatively impact the economic vitality of our downtown. However, Princeton’s central business district, because of its many virtues as a popular destination, has always been a place where parking is difficult and relatively costly. I believe it will continue to prosper and I’m optimistic that the changes we have made are a step in the right direction.
I hope this helps provide some clarification about the parking problems. The rest of the Council and I welcome further discussion on these issues.
Princeton Council President