Vancouver looks to cut its parking expenses

Debt from program takes $1.25M from general fund annually

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Debt from Vancouver’s parking program pulls nearly $1.25 million a year from the city’s general fund — and with continued downward projections on a budget that’s lost $16 million in the last two years, a consultant is helping the city figure out ways to curb those costs.

Building the garages to help lure private development was key to bringing in several downtown buildings, including VancouverCenter, Riverview Tower and the West Coast Bank, Portland-based parking demand consultant Rick Williams told the Vancouver City Council on Monday evening. But as growth continues and demand for parking increases, the city may not be able to cut such deals in the future, he said.

“The system is not supporting itself,” Williams said.

Parking fees and fines make just enough to support patrol staff and other functions, but debt from three garages and some extra operational costs with on-street parking represent a drain on the general fund, which also pays for core services like police, fire and parks.

It’s not clear if selling the garages to get out from under that debt would be the best choice — parking garages make money after they’re paid off, so Vancouver would be selling them at a loss, Parking Manager Mike Merrill said. The city is expected to complete its debt payments in about 10 years, Merrill told the city council.

The city’s $1.245 million annual debt payment is split between: VancouverCenter Garage, $923,300; Riverview Tower Garage, $162,500; West Coast Bank Garage, $64,800; on-street parking $ 94,400.

What is clear is that Vancouver can’t build future garages like it has in the past.

A vision for development in the city’s center calls for 8,400 new spaces for commercial and employment growth downtown — at a cost of up to $637 million, Williams said. While the VancouverCenter and other garages house mostly downtown commuters, the city in the future should focus on building or creating space for shoppers and other visitors, or about 1,260 future spots, he said.

The problem may rest far in the future, however: The city’s off-street garages are just about 60 percent utilized, and downtown has 600 spaces that are generally open for cars. The West Coast Bank Garage is underutilized at just 45 percent, a study conducted this March shows.

Instead of building an entire garage for an incoming development, Vancouver may need to agree to create spots only for commerce, and leave creating the rest of the spots to the private sector. Encouraging downtown workers to use transit or other alternative transportation to their jobs could also cut down demand on new parking construction, he said.

“How much of that do we want to put on our shoulders versus how much do we want to partner with others?” Williams said.

The consultant also recommended that the city begin to raise its current rates based on the Consumer Price Index, a common measure of inflation.

The city council said it backs the idea of raising rates every year or so based on some measure of inflation, but several members balked at the idea of keeping the garages that the city’s already got.

“While it’s nice to say we have the general fund, can we wait until they’re paid off?” Councilor Jack Burkman asked. “I don’t see the funding mechanism.”

Councilor Bart Hansen also said he was squeamish about “government owning property we’re not using,” and pointed out the $1.25 million was “a lot” of the $9 million the city had to cut from its budget last year.

Councilor Jeanne Harris said she agreed with the consultant’s recommendations.

“I believe that parking garages are capital assets that the city should invest in, but they should be managed privately,” she said.

The city conducted an unscientific Web survey on parking, and of the more than 400 respondents, a vast majority said either “yes,” or “yes, but only if it saves money but provides the same level of service, to keeping the garages.

Mayor Tim Leavitt said that he’d like to hear more about how the Columbia River Crossing’s three planned parking garages for light rail commuters might affect the city’s plans.

“We’re weaning some of our core services off the general fund,” he said. “Our policy should be to promote multi-modal access to downtown so that parking is not such a burdensome issue for us.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reporterdamewood or www.twitter.com/col_cityhall.