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With Albany’s residential permit-parking system clearing its final hurdles, the devil is still in the details

by Darryl McGrath on April 18, 2012

Although no one would have said it at the time, getting Albany’s residential permit-parking bill through the state Legislature two years ago is looking like the easy part.

With unanimous Common Council approval Monday of an ordinance that enacts the parking system’s framework—the regulations will come in a later vote this summer—a special council committee headed by the 6th Ward’s Richard Conti is still juggling numbers. The task at hand: to make sure that every resident, business owner or property owner in the three designated downtown zones who needs a parking space will be able to find one.

The home-rule legislation that authorized Albany to create the system, nearly 25 years after the state Court of Appeals overturned an earlier version, allows the city to designate 2,750 permit parking spaces for residents, business owners and nonresident property owners. But the city will sell more than 2,750 permits (how many more is not yet known) because the permit-parking system will be in effect only during weekdays, and many permit holders won’t need daytime downtown parking when they drive to their jobs elsewhere. Conversely, most business owners won’t be parking at night when the residents come home, but trying to balance the total usage is proving a challenge. The council’s ad hoc parking committee has been reworking the numbers for months, and is still coming up with more people who will need parking than the number of spaces available to accommodate them.

“It would be nice if we had about 100 more [spaces],” Conti said. “Every time you think you’ve got the number figured out, it doesn’t come up right.”

To get it right, the committee may have to tap a reserve of about 100 spaces that had been held in abeyance for the inevitable adjustments expected to occur once the system starts. Despite such hassles, Conti does expect the new system to start in the fall. No one talks much about the fact that this is a pilot program, up for review by the Legislature in two years, but the city expects to keep good records to document how the system is working when that time comes.

The ordinance allows one residential parking decal for each vehicle registered to residents in the designated downtown zones, at $25 per decal. Each household will get one $10 visitor permit. Nonresident business owners and property owners will also be allowed to buy parking permits, and contractors can get permits for the duration of a job in a downtown zone. Resident decals and visitor permits will have bar codes that can be electronically scanned, to help reduce fraud. A visitor permit that shows up in the same car day after day, for example, could suggest that someone is “leasing” the permit to the highest bidder for regular daytime commuter parking, instead of legitimately using it for a guest.

Around the final details of starting the system come discussions of a philosophical and fiscal nature. The Common Council’s Frank Commisso Jr. of the 15th Ward—which covers the city’s western end—still thinks the $25 permit fee is too low. He wouldn’t say how high he thought the fee should be.

“I just thought that a higher residential rate could have provided revenue to subsidize other services – biking, carpooling—and could have provided a disincentive to own a car,” Commisso said. “Then again, it’s very hard for us to tell someone, ‘You have to pay a very high rate to park in front of your own house.’”

Commisso owns one car and acknowledges even while advocating fewer cars for everyone that it can be difficult for a family with children or multiple jobs to reduce or eliminate personal vehicles. Given the tremendous complexities of starting the residential permit parking system, he has high praise for Conti and his other council colleagues who have spent months tackling the details.

Kelly Bush, president of the Center Square Neighborhood Association, lives on Chestnut Street, which is adjacent to Empire State Plaza and is believed to have one of the city’s highest rates of daytime nonresident parking. In plain English, it’s no secret that Chestnut Street has long been a free commuter parking lot for state workers.

Bush understands why many of her neighbors are eager for resident permit parking, but she strikes a note of equanimity when speaking about the larger implications of the legislation that authorized the system two years ago. Her husband, Brian Bush, is a retired state Department of Health scientist who walked to work but who also had many commuting colleagues, and Kelly Bush says she understands both sides of the parking debate. She also believes the fact that the parking bill passed the Legislature reflects something of a decline in the power of state unions, as well as the loss of thousands of state jobs through budget cutbacks and attrition. This should give everyone pause for thought, Bush says, because while state workers do take up neighborhood parking spaces, they also support downtown businesses and are the reason, for example, that some small restaurants can afford to open only for lunch.

“I’ve never been huge on the whole residents versus commuters,” Bush says. “I’ve always hoped we’d find another way to go about it. It’s a complicated issue. We’re losing the people that play a big part in making Albany a neat place to live and work in. You do have to wonder, after several decades, why is this finally going through?”