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Parking plan proceeds with caution

The Ashland City Council accepted a downtown parking plan almost as presented on Tuesday but delayed the hiring of a full-time parking czar, preferring to instead watch the process unfold with other priorities first.

Chief among those priorities would be expanding the downtown parking enforcement zone which the city estimates will generate an additional $102,000 in revenue from issuing parking tickets. Also on the list would be looking into shared parking lots with businesses after hours, better signs which more clearly identify spaces for parking and looking into creating ways to move employees out of prime parking downtown into separate parking areas.

“I’m disappointed there isn’t more emphasis on more options, especially for older people getting into town who can’t ride their bikes. I’m thinking also about the people who work late and aren’t going to be interested in having to walk far out of town after work,” said Councilor Stefani Seffinger.

The more ambitious aspects of the original plan which included multi-modal transportation such as expanded bike lanes, park and ride lots, and electric city shuttle  buses did not, in this plan, make the cut.

“There’s a huge amount of work to do. I’m disappointed we didn’t do a downtown plan. Without it we’re re-arranging deck chairs,” said Transportation Committee Chair and City Planning Commissioner Michael Dawkins. He praised the committee's diversity and energy. but said the scaled down plan adopted didn’t address the key elements like a shuttle and multimodal.

His view was echoed by citizens who urged the city to be ambitious about the opportunity created by exploring options that move away from carbon emissions and single vehicles. “These are not usual times and we can’t afford to drop the ball,” said resident Donna Swanson. “We need to adopt electric (shuttles). Cities are doing this. It is realistic. Let’s also see a city where tourists leave their cars outside of town and take a shuttle.”

“I’m going to say in 18 months I hope to hop on a circulator bus. I stop in town for coffee and I get back on to go shopping,” said Louise Shawkat, who also spoke to the need for environmental solutions to be included in any plan involving cars.

But councilors decided the state of a tight budget forces them to move more slowly. In making the motion to adopt the slimmed-down parking plan, Councilor Greg Lemhouse endorsed steady progress at less expense, saying, “Let’s focus on what’s immediate and least costly first. Let’s not deal with the hiring of a manager until we develop a plan first.” Lemhouse suggested current staff can get the ball rolling now and, perhaps in the next budget cycle, a "parking czar" can be hired.

Councilor Rich Rosenthal weighed in on a moderate approach as well. “I’m not convinced there’s a parking crisis. But, I support a process for figuring it out and keeping in mind a carbon footprint. I don’t support building more parking garages.”

City staff has reported that parking is at 85 percent full in peak season which, according to the Public Works Department, is considered critical mass.

While the adoption of the leaner parking plan was passed unanimously, Councilor Mike Morris expressed concern that it didn’t go far enough. “I’m glad to see we’re going to pick it up but I do have some of the same concerns as Mr. Dawkins.”

Mayor John Stromberg capped off the discussion by suggesting that all elements need to be included in future planning. “The most fundamental question will be how to pay for all our needs and keep our vitality as a city. I also think we’re going to need to think about our carbon footprint,” the mayor said, suggesting parking cannot stand alone as an issue. “We’re going to launch an integrated plan. I’m supporting it but I think it will take more discussion and planning.”

— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at julieanneakins@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.