MARTINEZ -- With Contra Costa County Superior Court closures next month, Martinez is bracing for an influx of vehicles and a downtown parking crunch.
For years, city leaders have called for building a parking garage to move long-term parkers off the streets and free up spaces for shoppers and diners. But with $808,000 in the parking fund and redevelopment no longer an option, a garage isn't likely to happen any time soon.
"If there's going to be any economic growth in this community, we've got to increase our parking stock," Mayor Rob Schroder said last week during a freewheeling discussion of the city's parking woes.
He called for a multifaceted approach that could include a garage, parking lots and a private operator to manage new lots.
Court administrators believe Martinez needs at least 40 more spaces to accommodate the people whose cases would have been heard in Concord or Walnut Creek before the court system's budget cuts. In fact, Councilman Mark Ross, whose office is downtown, said he's already noticed that parking spaces are filling up earlier.
But a big change is coming next year. The long-standing, informal practice of free parking for jurors ends in April. While ending the policy won't add parking spaces, it will result in more meter revenue for Martinez, which clears about $65,000 annually, depending on enforcement. The city socks that money away in the parking fund.
If the council agrees to spend $85,000 for 165 single-space parking meters that accept credit and debit cards, the $15,000 yearly cost of operating the meters will chip away at the surplus and put a parking garage further out of reach.
"Credit card transactions actually end up costing us money," City Engineer Tim Tucker said.
Although Schroder, Ross and Councilman Mike Menesini favor buying the meters, the council delayed a decision until they review parking enforcement costs, credit card revenue, fees and other data at the Jan. 16 meeting. The council members largely rejected a proposal to charge for Saturday parking and to extend meter hours. Staff also had recommended raising the hourly rate from 50 cents to a dollar, but only Menesini said he's willing to consider a "modest" increase. The council did approve a parking meter holiday until Jan. 6.
Councilwoman Lara DeLaney called for permanent free parking in the downtown core with a strictly enforced two-hour limit. But Tucker pointed out that, while it may seem counterintuitive, charging for parking helps cities manage the availability of spaces. For example, to encourage turnover of the two-hour spaces along Main Street, Martinez charges 25 cents per hour for the 10-hour parking spots on the fringes of downtown.
In May, the city installed 62 single-space parking meters that accept credit and debit cards along Main Street from Castro to Court streets for a three-month trial. The solar-powered meters use wireless technology and are less expensive than the multispace pay stations that have popped up across the Bay Area in the past few years.
During the trial period, the fees Martinez paid banks to process credit card transactions and to San Diego-based IPS Group (which makes the parking meters) for wireless connection, the Web-based management system and credit card charges exceeded credit card revenue by about $580, according to data from the city.
The numbers improved a bit from September to November, but fees still outpaced credit card revenue by nearly $380. And most people still paid by coins -- credit cards accounted for about 7 percent of transactions at the new meters in November.
Lisa P. White covers Martinez and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.