Drivers soon might have to dig deeper to park in Bethesda, Silver Spring
County proposes raising fees, expanding hours for meters
Parking costs soon could rise in the bustling downtown districts of Silver Spring and Bethesda.
"It's expensive here already," said Elsa Diaz of Beltsville, as she fed coins into a downtown Bethesda meter Friday evening.
Under Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett's proposed fiscal 2012 budget, fees for longer term parking at Silver Spring and Bethesda lots, garages and street meters would increase by 10 cents per hour. The Montgomery County Council is considering whether to include the increases in the county's budget.
Fees for three hours or more of parking in Bethesda would increase from 65 cents to 75 cents per hour; in Silver Spring they would rise from 50 cents to 60 cents. Costs for monthly passes also would increase, from $120 to $140 in Bethesda and $95 to $113 in Silver Spring.
The proposal would also expand hours during which people will be charged for parking in Bethesda lots and garages to include Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Currently, meters on streets run Saturdays, but garage and lot parking is free, said Stephanie Coppula, a spokeswoman for the Bethesda Urban Partnership, a nonprofit organization that maintains and promotes downtown Bethesda.
The County Council tentatively plans to have a public hearing on the proposal to raise the fees at its April 26 meeting.
The county expects the 10-cent fee increase for long-term parking to raise an additional $650,000 per year. Charging for Saturday parking is expected to raise an additional $700,000, according to county spokeswoman Esther Bowring.
County council member Marc Elrich said he has not made up his mind about the issue but believes that the council should compare county parking fees with those in the surrounding area, especially Washington, D.C. Parking meters Washington cost 75 cents an hour for some zones and $2 an hour for higher-demand zones. Meters are in effect on Saturdays.
"I'm not sure whether it's the fee or the inconvenience of change that really drives people crazy about meters," Elrich said.
The county is in the process of expanding its Pay-By-Cell Program. Leggett announced last week that drivers now can use cell phones to pay for 5,250 county parking meters in Bethesda, which has 2,094 short-term parking spaces and 5,418 long-term spaces.
The program is expected to expand to 11,000 parking meters in Silver Spring, Wheaton, Montgomery Hills and North Bethesda, a news release from the county executive said.
People register for the program online with a credit card. When they park, they call a number, select their meter location and enter the desired amount of time to pay for the space. When their time is about to expire, they receive a text message that allows them to choose whether to extend it. A fee of 35 cents would is charged for the service, in addition to the parking fee.
Vin Montagnino, a Bethesda resident who parks downtown almost daily, said he probably will not change his routine if the county hikes parking fees. But he believes that charging more to park is a bad idea.
"I think it's dumb, if you want people to come down here and spend money," Montagnino said. "It's counterproductive."
County council member Roger Berliner, who represents Bethesda, said he is weighing the benefits of the extra money the fee hikes would generate against the potential losses they could cause for downtown businesses and residents.
"There is a lot of concern that a combination of the increase in fines and rates will discourage people from coming to Bethesda," Berliner said. "We are going to be looking at all those issues, and we are looking to have a conversation with the community. This is still in its very early stages."
The money from Bethesda's downtown garages and meters goes to the Bethesda Parking Lot District Fund, a rolling account that was estimated at $13.9 million at the beginning of fiscal 2011. That fund pays for maintenance, renovations and upgrades for garages, construction of new garages, the free downtown shuttle Bethesda Circulator and the alternative transportation education program Bethesda Transportation Solutions, said Ken Hartman, director of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center. The fund also supports 80 percent of the budget for the Bethesda Urban Partnership, Coppula said.
The fund has declined in recent years because fewer people have used long-term parking in downtown Bethesda and, without a fee increase, the decline is expected to continue, Hartman said. The fund is projected to have $11.63 million at the end of fiscal 2011 and $3.65 million at the end of fiscal 2017.
If the fee increase is approved, the additional money largely would be used to pay off county bonds for Lot 31, an $88 million underground garage that will add about 1,200 spaces near Bethesda Row that is set to begin construction later this year. The fund will begin putting money toward the lot in fiscal 2013, according to the county's fiscal 2012-2017 plan for the fund.
The revenue gathered from Silver Spring parking meters and garages will go toward running and maintaining the parking facilities and personnel costs, said Steve Nash, chief of the division of parking management. The rest goes toward Silver Spring's urban district, which gets around $1.8 million, and mass transit, which gets around $3.9 million, Nash said.
In fiscal year 2011, the Silver Spring Parking Lot District gathered 9.5 million in parking fees and permits and 3.1 million in parking fines, Nash said.
"The general conclusion is that all Silver Spring [parking] revenue stays in Silver Spring," Nash said.