Downtown Sacramento parking rates likely to rise

Parking meters stand near Sacramento’s City Hall in Sacramento.
Parking meters stand near Sacramento’s City Hall in Sacramento.

Sacramento city officials are expected to ask for City Council approval in the coming weeks to raise downtown parking meter rates by 50 cents an hour, and to test a premium parking concept for people willing to pay a higher rate to add time beyond a meter’s normal limit.

The city also is considering extending meter operating hours beyond 6 p.m. to as late as 2 a.m.

City officials say the moves are part of their ongoing effort to modernize Sacramento’s parking operations and make downtown parking more convenient. The changes also signal a new era of incremental rate hikes and the eventual adoption of variable pricing – which allows for higher rates in areas where parking demand is high, such as near the downtown arena during events or popular restaurant and entertainment areas.

City officials declined Sacramento Bee requests to discuss the potential changes. In a brief emailed statement, city parking manager Matt Eierman said his department is still researching the next steps, although he has been briefing business leaders privately on the likely changes. His division plans to bring a proposal to the City Council in late August or September.

“As Sacramento continues to evolve, we need to improve the current flow of traffic throughout our city to accommodate the smart growth we desire,” Eierman wrote. “The details regarding parking enforcement from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. are still up for discussion.

“The rationales behind the proposed changes are due to a consistent lack of parking supply to support the current parking demand.”

Eierman said the modernization program was conceived independent of the city’s agreement with the Kings to help finance a downtown arena, now under construction and set for an October 2016 opening date. A Bee review of arena financing plan documents last year, however, indicates the city is looking for net parking revenues to rise by as much as 50 percent in the next seven years to help repay bonds being sold to finance the arena.

City parking officials have offered several downtown and midtown business groups briefings in recent weeks on proposed meter changes, including a request for a council OK to increase the hourly meter rate by 50 cents. The current rate has been $1.25 an hour since 2008.

The city also plans to test a premium parking or extended-stay program on several blocks in Old Sacramento and midtown that will allow downtown patrons to use smartphones to call up a meter and add extra time beyond the meter’s allotted time limit.

Those extra hours will come at a price, potentially double the regular hourly rate. City officials are pitching the premium parking concept as a way to cut down on the number of downtown visitors who get parking citations.

“The opportunity to extend your parking time and avoid a ticket should be a huge benefit to people who visit downtown by car,” Councilman Steve Hansen said. “Tickets are by far the most hated aspect of what the city does.”

Chris McSwain of the Old Sacramento Business Association said his board supports the pilot program.

“We’re open to see how it works,” McSwain said. He said it could allow people who are shopping or in restaurants to linger without risking a ticket.

In past interviews, parking officials pointed to consultant studies that say Sacramento’s parking meter rates are below market, and should be raised over time so that they are in line with downtown garage parking rates. Higher meter rates would prompt more drivers to use garages for longer visits, and free up meters for more short-term parking.

A consultant’s report last year suggested the city could boost its street parking meter rates in the next four years to $3 an hour, and increase rates in four of its five downtown garages from the current $3 an hour to $5 an hour. On arena game nights, Walker Parking Consultants suggests, some fans might be willing to pay a flat $15 rate for the best parking spots close to the arena when attending major events.

Eierman has said the city is using the Walker Parking report for guidance but will decide for itself when and how much to increase rates, based on the reality in Sacramento.

“We will go at the market rate,” he said.

Net revenues from city garages, meters and parking citations were flat for five years during the recession but improved last year and this year. As part of the modernization program, the city replaced its old meters over the last year with smart meters that accept credit cards and most coins.

According to city arena documents, the parking division revenues are expected to account for anywhere from 35 percent to 50 percent of the revenue the city will use in the early years of its 36-year bond repayments, depending in part on the interest rates the city commits to when it sells the bonds.

Lease payments from the Kings will account for $6.5 million to $18 million annually over time. The city also plans to put $6 million in hotel taxes and other funds into the financing pot as a reserve for the early years. If those funds are not enough, and other revenue sources are not available, the city could resort to dipping into its general fund to make bond payments.

Hansen, who represents downtown, said he will hold a community meeting in his district at the Hart Senior Center on Aug. 12 to discuss the city’s plans and get feedback before the next steps are taken.