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Gauging pay parking's impacts

Mayor says officials have learned lessons from reintroduction of pay parking

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Pay parking was such a hot-button issue ahead of the 2011 local election that it was cited as one of the main reasons many Whistlerites voted to replace the then-mayor and council in a rare clean sweep.

With the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) reintroducing pay parking to Day Lots 4 and 5 this summer, the issue has reared its head once more.

And although there are some distinct differences between the two situations — the previous council used parking revenues to bolster the RMOW's reserves, while today's council has used revenues to expand transit service — there is no question that the move has rubbed many the wrong way.

"We pay high taxes but every year the residents have more items taken off the table. We receive less and less for our tax dollars," said local Kathleen Smith in a recent letter to council.

"Over the years we have gone from free parking everywhere to pay parking everywhere."

Opponents of the RMOW's pay parking initiative got some temporary relief this week with lots 4 and 5 returning to free as of Tuesday, Sept. 5, until Dec. 15.

Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said she was mostly satisfied with the program, in particular its role in dramatically increasing ridership as part of the RMOW's free summer transit initiative, which she called "an overwhelming success."

And while the measure's true impact can't be gleaned until the RMOW finishes compiling traffic and parking data over the coming weeks, Wilhelm-Morden did acknowledge there are some key takeaways from this summer that officials will take back to the drawing board.

"This was meant to be an evolving situation, so there's no question that we've learned some lessons from pay parking this summer," she said.

One of those key lessons for the RMOW surrounded the level of overflow parking cramping neighbourhoods close to the village.

In Whistler Cay Heights, for example, homeowners have watched as streams of visitors parked their vehicles along residential streets to save from paying for parking in the village.

"Since pay parking was implemented in July, Eagle Drive, the main street outside our complex, has seen (an) increase in parked cars, vans and even campers," wrote Rhonna Gurevich in a letter to council.

Others lamented the municipality's decision to allow temporary bus parking in certain areas, such as Montebello, although, as of Sept. 1, this was no longer permitted.

"That temporary bus parking was somewhat ill conceived," conceded Wilhelm-Morden.

The Marketplace lot also saw the rollout of pay parking this summer, a measure introduced by property manager Headwater Projects to improve accessibility and increase vehicle turnover.

The move was met with some confusion after it was first launched in July as the public got accustomed to the new metering system, which requires drivers parking for longer than 30 minutes to register their license plate number for one free hour, and then pay $3 for a second hour (or $2 through a mobile app).

"It's been a bit of an educational process for some people, but the goal is to make sure we have more room for our customers, and that's certainly worked quite well," noted Jim Watts of fastPark, which manages the lot.

But several Marketplace businesses Pique spoke with questioned whether the initiative was having its intended effect of increasing customer turnover.

"It's our busiest time of year so I think we'd be busy regardless," said Nicolette Richer, owner of vegetarian café The Green Moustache. "We'll see the impact, I think, when the locals come in (during shoulder season)."

Over at The Great Glass Elevator, the candy shop's Kelly Czekurlon said she's heard complaints from numerous customers over long lineups at the metre and a parking system that remains unclear.

"People are confused, getting tickets and they're not happy," she added. "Lots of people have gotten tickets and said they didn't know anything about it."

This was echoed by Escape Route manager Larry Falcon, who said the new system has caught some customers — who in many cases stay in the store for longer than an hour — off-guard.

"What transpires is that they will book an hour free and if they're not cognizant of the time, they end up missing that hour and of course end up with a ticket on their windshield," he explained.

"It will really raise its head more come winter when someone comes in to try on boots, to try on skis and bindings; that is much longer than an hour-long process."

For many locals, adding more pay parking came across as tone-deaf in a time when they're already feeling the pinch due to Whistler's rising living costs.

Wilhelm-Morden said the municipality is "very, very cognizant" of affordability concerns in the community, something the RMOW is addressing "in a very serious way through housing initiatives, free transit on weekends, and other initiatives as well."

She also stressed the importance of meeting Whistler's climate targets by enticing drivers to get out of their cars, an effort she believes the majority of residents support — at least until it hits their wallets.

"Global warming is a reality," she said. "Community members say we need to do something about global warming and then jump in their cars and expect free parking."

With Whistler heading to the polls next year, Wilhelm-Morden is also fully aware residents could take out their frustrations at the ballot box, just as voters did when she was swept into office six years ago.

"It may well be this is an issue that will last through the course of the year and influence the election," she admitted. "But ultimately it comes down to whether it's the right thing to do or the politically expedient thing to do."

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