Downtown Sacramento parking in Kings arena era: Smart meters, premium prices

New parking meters in Sacramento are accepting credit cards as well as coins.
New parking meters in Sacramento are accepting credit cards as well as coins.

It just got easier to pay for parking in downtown Sacramento. Soon it will likely get more expensive, too.

City crews will install the last of 4,000 “smart” parking meters around the central core in the next few weeks. The new meters represent the first of several parking technology improvements the city plans to put in place before the fall 2016 opening of the new Kings arena, which will draw nightly swarms of drivers to games and concerts, testing the city’s ability to move them in and out efficiently.

Parking officials say step one has worked out well. Nearly half of downtown parking customers now feed the new meters with credit cards instead of fishing for coins, up from 10 percent when the first new meters went in last year.

“People are starting to realize they don’t have to carry a roll of coins around anymore,” said city parking technology manager Mike King.

A second step is being tested in Old Sacramento. It’s a cellphone app that texts a warning to a driver whose meter is about to expire. The same app allows people to use their phones to add meter time remotely – from a nearby restaurant, a business meeting, or, eventually, while sitting in the stands at the new arena.

The city plans to expand the phone-app test area to streets around Cesar Chavez Plaza as early as this week. Eventually, the program will be employed throughout the central city.

“We’re moving to the next level,” said city parking manager Matt Eierman. While the arena is the main catalyst, he said, many of the planned upgrades need to be made anyway.

“It’s about more than just an arena,” Eierman said. “It is about modernizing our technologies to support the existing and future business of Sacramento.”

The changes likely will include parking rate increases this year and beyond. The city is counting on increased parking revenue to help it make payments on the debt used to finance its $255 million contribution to the $477 million arena, under construction at Sixth and K streets.

Parking officials say they will consult with downtown businesses and survey other cities before going to the City Council next month with recommendations for possible rate increases at meters and downtown garages. Eierman said he’s not sure how big an increase his staff will recommend, but a report commissioned by the city last year suggested the market would allow meter rates to rise as much as 50 cents an hour this year – from $1.25 to $1.75 – and would accommodate a similar increase in garage rates.

The city also will experiment later this year with requiring parkers to pay some meters after 6 p.m., when downtown parking now becomes free.

City leaders say they realized two years ago during early arena financing discussions that they were not taking full advantage of downtown parking as a revenue generator, and that they weren’t providing the level of customer service and convenience via technology that other cities do.

“We have lingered toward the bottom of innovation,” said City Councilman Steve Hansen.

Officials say the arena has helped them focus their energies. Downtown Sacramento’s freeway and grid street system is built to handle traffic and parking for tens of thousands of commuters daily. The arena will lure nearly 8,000 cars for sold-out events in a short period of time. While some may head to garages and street meters away from the arena, many of them are likely to angle for closer spots.

City parking officials say they spent a few nights recently observing parking operations at Sleep Train Arena in Natomas during a Kings game and a concert, and came away with a goal of getting each car through garage entrance arms in 15 seconds or less on downtown game nights. They say that will require new technology at parking lot entrances, new signage, traffic control officers to guide drivers to entrances, and smart phone apps that tell people in real time which garages have spaces available, how much those spaces cost, and what is the least-congested route to get there.

The city recently sent a formal “request for qualifications” to parking technology companies to partner with the city on garage upgrades.

Eierman said the city will also talk with the Kings about allowing event-goers to reserve and prepay for a spot in a garage when they buy their arena tickets, rather than pay at the entrance the night of the game. That would allow the city to explore technology that recognizes license plates and immediately opens garage entrance arms for drivers who have prepaid.

Another change in the works: Pretty soon you may be able to park longer than the sign says you can – for a price. Eierman said he plans to ask the City Council next month for the OK to try out a “premium hour” concept, allowing parkers with the smartphone app to add more time on their meters, beyond the posted limits, if they are willing to pay a higher fee. He said that “premium” amount has not yet been decided.

He said the city expects to experiment with variable pricing, such as raising meter rates during lunch hours in areas where parking spots are in high demand.

That possibility has some business people concerned. Dave Scurfield, who runs a real estate company based in Old Sacramento, said adjustable parking rates, based on daily or hourly demand, could be off-putting to visitors.

“It kind of bothers me a bit,” he said. “It’s kind of putting the squeeze on people just visiting Old Sac. They could get a bad taste in their mouth. I just don’t want people to feel like they are getting squeezed.”

Michael Ault, head of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, said the city’s downtown parking improvements are timely. But he said he’d like to see more done to reduce the abuse of disabled placards, which allow free parking at meters. “It’s frustrating,” he said. “We need to figure out how we can work with the accessible community to not be filling all those spaces and limiting access to retail customers coming in.”

Councilman Hansen, who represents the downtown, said he wants price increases to be done judiciously. “We have to keep downtown a place that people want to go,” he said. “I am reluctant to introduce any kind of rate shock.”

Not all costs will go up, Eierman said. The city likely will use technology to vary pricing, up and down, on the street and in garages, depending on the demand of a block or garage. That way, the city can offer financial incentives to encourage some arena-goers to park farther from the arena, reducing congestion near the facility.

Parking isn’t the only downtown transportation-related overhaul expected in the run-up to the arena opening.

This week, several hundred downtown property owners will be asked to vote to tax themselves to help pay for a streetcar system that, if built, would serve as a people mover to and from the arena, bringing in customers from as much as a mile away.

The city also adopted rules recently to professionalize the downtown taxi industry, requiring taxi drivers to accept credit card payments, dress neatly and pass an English test.

A group of downtown business leaders also will present a series of recommendations to the Regional Transit board this week on steps that the agency should take to improve safety, convenience and cleanliness on light-rail trains that will ferry some event-goers into downtown.

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.

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