Parkers foot bill as St. Paul makes money hand over fist

Today’s Pioneer Press analysis of downtown St. Paul parking rates raises an ongoing question: Are the parking meters tools to keep parking spots rotating to provide more options for drivers? Or are they no-armed bandits in a city with a declining downtown?

The PiPress says the meters are more expensive than those in Minneapolis, even though the downtown is generally devoid of retail. The rate per hour next year will go up again — to $2.25 under Mayor Chris Coleman’s plan to “maximize” revenue.

At what cost to the city?

“It does discourage people. We hear complaints … and there’s little new retail in downtown St. Paul. We’re one of the first ones in years, and we’re trying to build,” Dave Unowsky, events manager at Subtext Books, tells the paper.

“They always talk about make a welcoming environment for retail downtown, and doing stuff like this does not make that the case,” the store’s manager added.

But people are paying because the city is making plenty of money, particularly since it can get rid of the humans that once patrolled the streets, emptying old meters of coins.

Net revenues this year — calculated after maintenance costs are taken out — are estimated to double over last year, from $1.85 million to roughly $3.73 million, even accounting for an expected lull during winter months.

Remember, that’s net revenue — after maintenance costs. And that’s despite the fact that city maintenance costs have gone up under the new, card-reading system — though those costs have somewhat leveled in recent years.

In 2010, the cost to maintain meters was about $420,000 — mostly to house and maintain the coin collectors’ fleet.

But that shot up to $704,000 in 2013, and an estimated $810,000 this year, with added line items such as Visa and Mastercard service fees, armored car rental and routine maintenance on the new pay systems, including a new staff member.

That’s on top of maintaining the old coin-collector fleet. And it also doesn’t include the $240,000 it cost last year to install new machines. (In total, about $2 million has been spent thus far on installing the new system.)

The one thriving retail area of the city that doesn’t have the new parking meters is Grand Avenue. Businesses fought the proposal last year.

Looking out the window at the World Headquarters of NewsCut, there’s another impact of the parking meter cost. More people are parking in others’ contract parking spots in private lots and taking their chances.

The mayor’s office did not respond to the Pioneer Press’ request for comment on its story.