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Editor's Note: Parking matters—and so do voters

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DURING the discussion at last week’s Council meeting about the dramatic new parking changes downtown, Alderman Bill Durrence said, "Shame on you" if you object to the changes but never got involved in the process.

“That’s on you to know about it,” said Durrence of the new measures, which extend parking hours to 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays north of Liberty Street, doubling the price to $2 an hour.

Well, everybody knows about it now, Bill! And so far the idea seems about as popular as Ebola.

We all remember some unpopular things City Council has done. But I don’t think I remember them voting nearly unanimously for something which appears to have literally no measurable level of citizen support.

That said, the new “Parking Matters” plan isn’t quite as dastardly as has been made out. The big tradeoff is we will join the 21st century by getting the ability to pay meters through a parking app.

This takes off the table one of the biggest criticisms of the new plan, namely that hourly workers downtown would have to leave their jobs on unsafe, dark streets to feed the meter at night. When the new system is up and running, this will not be the case.

(Though of course there’s still the issue of the longer hours and doubling of rates, not to mention the possibility that the rollout of the parking app will be handled in the same stunningly incompetent manner as the utility bill software debacle.)

Also somewhat lost in the hubbub is the fact that the new hours only apply to the area north of Liberty Street, for a two-year phase-in period. Council reserves the right to then extend the plan southward, as originally envisioned.

My guess is they surely will, given the high cost—over $2 million and counting—of the contract for the new “smart” meters.

There is also much concern that the conspicuous exemption of Sundays—i.e. to avoid the wrath of the politically powerful church lobby in Savannah—is discriminatory against those of the Jewish faith, who of course honor the Sabbath on Saturdays.

But in my mind the upshot of this complaint will simply be to incentivize the City to extend parking hours to Sundays as well, or to provide parking passes to congregants. There is zero chance that this objection will cause the plan to be reversed.

Good people can agree to disagree on the entire issue of the parking changes. Our News Cycle columnist John Bennett this week contributes an excellent perspective.

My focus right now is on the pure politics of this vote, and what it tells us about the state of leadership in Savannah.

Remember the “nearly unanimously” part I mentioned above? That’s what really interests me.

Remarkably, the most deeply unpopular measure City Council has addressed in recent memory only received a single dissenting vote, from Alderman Van Johnson.

(The vote was 7-1, with Alderwoman Shabazz not in attendance.)

Johnson focused on the plight of hourly workers downtown, saying it was unfair to them, and particularly unfair to make them the guinea pigs for the first phase of the program.

There’s been a lot of cynical criticism of Johnson’s vote to the effect that, “He’s running for mayor, so of course he voted against it.”

To which my response is: So what?

First off, I don’t know if Van Johnson is running for mayor. If he is, is it really so bad that he voted the way 99.99 percent of Savannah voters clearly want him to?

In what world is that a problem? It’s not his fault no one else voted no.

Shouldn’t the focus be on Council members who are so phenomenally out of touch that they voted for a plan with support so negligible that a poll probably couldn’t even scientifically measure it?

In a TV interview prior to the vote, Alderman Durrence said, “If you want to complain, that’s fine, but know why we’re doing things the way we’re doing them.”

That was a tell that the vote was a fait accompli, that there was no way the new hours and rates wouldn’t be implemented.

Simply put, the “Parking Matters” plan is too big to fail. Too much consultant money had gone into it, and City staff had expended too many personnel hours on the measure for it to fail.

And so Savannah loses yet one more thing that made it special, and charming, and somewhat unique: free parking at night and on weekends.

This joins a long list of changes intended to bring Savannah more “in line” with other markets, less distinguishable from them, and therefore less special.

If you do a Google News search of “parking turnover rate,” you’ll see all sorts of recent examples of cities across America doing the same thing we’re doing: Extending parking hours, and in most cases, dramatically increasing rates.

These moves almost always seem to coincide with the funding and installation of upgraded parking technology, which isn’t cheap.

Everyone is told that longer hours and higher rates ensure “turnover” by making each parking space more valuable.

One thing we’re always told is, it’s not about money. It’s never about money.

However, I have yet to meet a layperson who believes this.

It’s one of those things that may indeed be true, but just never seems to pass the smell test for most people.

The truth is probably in between the two extremes.

There’s certainly some truth that spaces, and parking garages, will be more efficiently utilized if on-street parking is more expensive.

And there’s certainly some truth that more expensive parking will encourage alternate forms of transportation, like bicycling. (Or as is at least equally likely, Uber and Lyft.) There is even a brand-new position planned just to help coordinate that worthy effort.

However, there’s probably also some truth that the cost of the new parking technology is high enough to require an enhanced revenue stream to pay for it.

And that revenue stream is you.

In any case, there’s another kind of turnover rate that comes into play.

Namely, the turnover rate of City Council members at election time.

In the end, the highest cost of the new parking measures may be to the people who voted in favor of them last week.

cs

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Speaking of Parking Matters, Bill Durrence

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