Can 56 Parking Meters Fix Washington Avenue's Traffic Mess?

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At 7 a.m. today, 56 parking meters scattered along the Washington Avenue area will be turned on, the first step in a new plan the City of Houston hopes will eventually relieve the severe traffic congestion that at peak times can suffocate one of its most popular entertainment corridors.

As announced Tuesday, the meters will cover a stretch of Washington lasting running about three miles, from Houston Avenue to Westcott Street. Between the side streets of Center to the north and Lillian/Decatur to the south, the area has been designated Houston's first-ever Parking Benefit District, or PBD.

Created by City Council in December 2012, the Washington Avenue PBD is supposed to funnel 60 percent of the revenue collected from these new meters directly into an array of community improvements that could include landscaping, public safety, sidewalk improvements or lighting. (The money collected from meters in other parts of Houston goes into the city's General Fund.)

At first glance, it may not seem like fewer than five dozen parking meters could make much of a dent, in either Washington's late-night gridlock or the new PBD's coffers, but Don Pagel would beg to differ.

A Deputy Director of the city's Department of Administrative and Regulatory Affairs and boss of its Parking Management Division, Pagel says he expects the meters to bring in between $500,000 and $600,000 over the course of the Washington PBD's 18-month pilot program.

That's a lot of quarters, though the meters are also accessible via credit card or the Parkmobile smartphone app. But Pagel is really hoping that the meters are like pushing over the first domino that leads to a complete realignment of the way people approach parking in the Washington corridor. Eliminating the dogged search for that magic free parking spot could actually help increase the area's safety by reducing congestion, Pagel points out.

"The notion of not having any free parking available generally causes people to take the first space they can find," he says.

No more free parking also creates an incentive for private parking companies to think about pooling their resources to create some kind of shared facility, Pagel adds. While he says has heard of no such plans afoot here yet, Pagel cautions that it is still early on in Houston's plan and that, although PBDs have been tried in other cities, the Washington program is one of the biggest he's seen thus far.

"I think we'll see more interest in some of these [shared parking] organizations as we move a few months," he says.

A crucial compontent of this plan to ease congestion is finding ways to increase "parking density." Pagel explains that before the meters, many employees of Washington Avenue businesses would park directly in front of their jobs. Understandable, perhaps, but Pagel says those spaces would be put to much better use by customers, preferably if there are several people in each car. When he explains it in terms of economics, it starts to make sense.

"Parking spaces is an inventory item just like any warehousing organization would have, so by putting a price on it, you tend to bring in the people that have the most spending capital for the development of commerce in the area," he says.

Furthermore, the city is exploring other ways to restructure the Washington parking model. It's encouraging Washington-area employees to park in the lots on the eastern end of the strip and utilize the Wave shuttle-bus service, and also enabling more bicycle usage and working with Metro on restructuring its bus routes that serve the area.

"A lot of the infrastructure is already there, and over time I think we'll see more infrastructure get built into it," Pagel says.

He returns to economics as a way of illustrating the Washington PBD's situation. Here he's talking about parking, but his words just as easily describe the corridor's recent economic downturn - demand has cooled somewhat as several places such as Pearl Bar and Sawyer Park have closed. Ironically, the area is already less congested.

"We go back to this concept that parking is an inventory item," Pagel says. "When supply is high prices are low, and when supply is low prices get higher. What that does, then, is creates incentive.

"When a business finds a way to make wild gross profit margins, the other competitors tend to jump in and start offering similar services until the availability of supply overcomes that," he adds. "So we're hoping, again, that this creates an opportunity to create some inventory."

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