TAMPA — Tampa’s parking system changed with the dawn of the New Year.
So far — perhaps because of the holidays and a pandemic-emptied downtown — the changes have escaped the notice of many, although not some downtown residents who no longer have free parking.
Free parking north of Kennedy Boulevard went out with 2020. Now, night owls willing to park between midnight and 8 a.m. will be the only ones not paying for a spot on the street downtown and in adjacent neighborhoods.
That’s not the only change. The city has also increased parking rates for the first time since 2004 on most of its 13,000-plus parking spots divided among streets, garages and lots.
For instance, starting Jan. 1, on-street rates downtown rose by a dollar, from $1.50 to $2.50 an hour.
The idea is twofold: to raise more money to modernize the city’s parking system with technology and parking garage improvements. And to give people added incentive to walk, bike or take a bus, trolley or scooter in the city’s most densely-populated areas, including Ybor City and the Channel District.
And the broader effects, aside from the environmental benefits of fewer people endlessly circling in search of a parking space, would be to free up land to help drive down real estate prices and encourage alternate ways of getting from point A to B.
“All of these pieces are connected,” said Vik Bhide, the city’s mobility director.
City Council member Orlando Gudes said he’s received only a few complaints since the changes — which will be phased in over a number of years — went into effect.
“Our parking rates have been so low, for decades,” Gudes said. But downtown and entertainment districts like Ybor run on the labor of people who can’t afford to pay much for parking. Restaurant, bar and hotel workers need to be able to park, he said.
“We had to make sure that our workforce, those folks who are the essential workers downtown, they need to make sure they can pay for parking and have a job,” said Gudes.
The city listened. Bhide said many outlying lots like those under Interstate 275 and Scott Street, often used by commuting service workers, will have minimal increases, if any at all.
As drivers approach the downtown core, prices are steeper, including at the Poe Garage next to Curtis Hixon Park and the Pam Iorio Garage in the Channel District, he said.
“We’ve tried to be mindful of equity,” Bhide said.
The city has an 11-year plan to implement the modernization, which includes technology that would allow for demand-pricing. By the end of the decade, the hope is that city’s parking system will not only pay for itself, but will generate enough revenue to pay for those upgrades, including in the city’s garages.
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Last year, the Downtown Partnership completed a parking study that suggested many of the steps now being adopted by the city.
Lynda Remund, the partnership’s CEO, noted that her organization “led the charge” for a revamped parking system, casting a wide net for community feedback to develop a data-driven, comprehensive plan.
“We appreciate and support Mayor Castor, the city of Tampa’s Mobility staff, and Tampa City Council to start implementing the phased changes for a 21st century parking system, as our Downtown continues to evolve and grow,” Remund said in a statement.
Exactly how much revenue will be raised has been scrambled by the coronavirus pandemic. Office building occupancy may never go back to pre-pandemic levels and it’s possible fewer people will want to live in high-density areas.
Before the pandemic, city officials had calculated a 30 percent increase in parking revenue this year to $21.3 million, rising to $30 million per year by 2026.
But the city is confident that its long-term strategy is sound. Other cities have already started on a similar path, including St. Petersburg, Bhide said.
“We’re really behind the eight-ball on this,” he said. “We’ve got some catching up to do.”