Before raising fines, Bethlehem considers testing free parking
Several Bethlehem City Council members agree that meter fines — the stick used to get motorists not to overstay their welcome at primo metered spots — are too low at $10.
But before hiking the fines, a couple of council members floated the idea of offering motorists a carrot — free parking.
At a committee meeting Tuesday, Councilwoman Paige Van Wirt asked that the Bethlehem Parking Authority consider a pilot study that would provide free parking for a couple of hours in sections of the downtown and then double or triple the parking fines on those who violate the rules.
Her goal is to find a way to make the downtown friendlier to visitors who were socked with a meter rate increase this year from $1 to $1.50.
Councilwoman Olga Negron agreed, supporting Van Wirt for the committee to table the request by the Bethlehem Parking Authority to increase parking fines until the authority can consider the pilot study. Then council could get feedback from visitors, businesses and other stakeholders about how it worked. Parliamentary procedure allows a majority of council take the proposal back from the committee and consider the proposal at a subsequent council meeting before that pilot study is done.
The Parking Authority’s proposal would add $5 to the meter fine, bringing it to $15. Other fines are proposed to increase from $10 to $20 for double parking; $10 to $20 for overtime parking in a one-, two-, threeand four-hour zone; and $50 to $100 for parking in a handicap spot.
Authority Chairman Joe Hoffmeier said he welcomed the consideration of a pilot program on free parking but said that study should not delay increasing the current fines, which officials say aren’t deterring people from parking illegally. A $10 ticket for a meter violation is hardly enough to get people to move to a garage where the daily rate is $10, parking officials say.
Mayor Robert Donchez, who was not at the meeting, said he would like to know more about Van Wirt’s proposal before commenting. The mayor, who is responsible for setting meter rates, said he hasn’t gotten complaints since the meter increase went into effect this January.
The goal of the fine increase, which City Council must approve, was to move daylong visitors into the garages, where they get a better deal, freeing up more on-street parking for people on short errands.
Desman Design Management, the authority’s consultants, say parking industry standards call for the meter fines be at least 10-15 times the hourly parking rate. That would result in Bethlehem as a fine between $15-$22.50. Parking meter violations in Easton, which has a hourly meter rate of $1, is $25, and Allentown, which has an hourly meter rate $1-$2, is $10. Reading, which has an hourly rate of $1.50, is $20, according to a list compiled by Desman.
The authority’s numbers back that up. Comparing the first six months of last year and this year, the number of meter violations jumped by 27% to 15,700 tickets. Overall tickets during that time rose by 7% to 41,642. From 2014-2018, the parking tickets increased from 22,940 to 78,000 — a 240% increase.
Kevin Livingston, executive director of the Bethlehem Parking Authority, said his staff could probably write more if the authority added another three or four enforcement officers.
“We are struggling to maintain order on the street,” Livingston said.
He said ticketing too many motorists isn’t good for the city and he would rather improve compliance by making fines heftier.
If the fine hikes are implemented, Desman projects a 20% reduction in the total number of tickets issued, a 40% reduction in meter violations and 40% in overtime parking. As a result of the fine increase, Desman is forecasting that fine revenue will be flat or slightly reduced the first year of the increase and the meter revenues will increase. That could result in parking revenue of $75,000 to $100,000 a year, or about a 2-3% increase of additional meter revenue.
Desman recommends the authority continue to assess meter parking violations every three to five years.
A vehicle with two tickets, one for expired inspection and parking sits on a windshield Tuesday on West Market Street in Bethlehem. .