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Originally published Wednesday, February 2, 2011 at 3:51 PM

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Seattle's latest parking rates too high, too confusing

Seattle's latest, latest parking rates, which begin rolling out Thursday, need more work because they are too high in some areas and too confusing overall.

SOME unsolicited advice to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and members of the City Council on their latest on-street parking rates: Fix them. The rates are too high and too confusing.

The city issued a 2011 rate plan that boosts rates to $4 an hour in the downtown commercial core and First Hill.

Perception about parking is almost as important as the rates themselves. There is no good reason for Seattle to have rates among the highest in the nation, which, at $4 an hour, is exactly what we will have.

Downtown and neighborhood business districts are important economic drivers. If the city needs more money, it can raise rates a little. But tread carefully. High rates can deter customers and slam cash flow to the city budget in the form of other taxes.

A few concerns:

• The idea of raising parking rates came about because of a need to generate more revenue. That sounds simple, but it is not. A city can boost parking rates and loses other tax revenue. Under a proposal by McGinn last fall, the city planned to raise meter rates from $2.50 to $4 an hour in several neighborhoods.

The City Council, led by Councilmember Tim Burgess, attempted to boost rates based on a market-driven formula that adjusts prices with the goal of leaving three or four spaces available per block. Too rigid. It would be better to allow three or four spaces per two or three blocks. People can and do walk.

• Turnover matters, so the market formula is worth considering, even if it is confusing. But so far, too much of the rate-making is based on peak hour usage. That skews toward higher rates.

A very good example is Pioneer Square. The latest plan would set rates at $3.50 an hour. Yes, the neighborhood is close to the stadiums, but $3.50 an hour is too high in a place trying to reinvent itself following the loss of Elliott Bay Book Co., which moved to Capitol Hill last year. Do not forget, construction is expected to begin later this year on the deep-bore tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct and that compounds Pioneer Square's woes.

• Because perception about parking is almost as important as the actual rate, the city should steal an idea from Boise, Idaho, and make the first hour of parking in city-owned Pacific Place Garage free. If the city insists on switching to market-based street parking, adding a free hour in a known location could simplify the individual's parking calculation.

Parking should be simple.

• Adding to the confusion is the fact that the latest plan extends meter rates until 8 p.m. (from the current 6 p.m.) in the International District, the commercial core, Belltown, Pike-Pine, Pioneer Square, Capitol Hill, the University District and the Uptown neighborhood. Some restaurateurs worry what that will do to business. What is the impact? The city needs to do more research, and not with an eye toward generating the most money possible.

Parking rates are more complicated than imagined. It is fine to try to better manage parking assets, but it must be done with the least confusion and not with the ultimate goal of collecting more money. The city's economy is fragile. Proceed with caution and more data.

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