Our View: Counterintuitive?

Posted: February 21, 2013

July 1 (or thereabouts), 2013 — “Welcome to Winchester. Come visit the shops and restaurants of our recently reinvigorated pedestrian mall. Oh, by the way, that will be 75 cents for the privilege. Please insert quarters in the meter.”

OK, we’re being facetious here. Such a message would never grace any sign in Old Town. But, in the wake of two votes taken Tuesday night in a City Council work session, that’s pretty much the unspoken implication: We’d love the patronage, but you’re gonna pay for it as soon as your feet hit the pavement.

Specifically, council advanced two ordinances toward a final vote. One would raise hourly parking rates at the city’s digital (i.e., “most-used”) meters from 50 cents to 75 cents an hour. The other would extend the weekday hours folks must feed the coin-guzzlers, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

The reason given for the increase: The Parking Authority faces renovation costs at its autoparks, not to mention ongoing debt-service costs for the relatively new George Washington Autopark. So, a rate increase has been deemed necessary — if the authority wishes to remain self-sustaining.

Mayor Elizabeth Minor and Councilor Ben Weber voted “no” on the rate hike. Mr. Weber also opposed extending the meters’ hours of operation. Citing the short time frame between the scheduled completion of the mall renovation and the July target date for the slated increases, both councilors may be on to something.

And that “something” is the counterintuitive nature of the increases. In other words, by putting a new and exciting face on the downtown mall, the city presumably desires more visitors and heightened patronage by locals. So why, less than two months after renovations are complete, would the city jack up the fees for parking? That’s akin to the cow who produces copious milk and then kicks over the buckets in which the dairy farmer has collected it. One action negates the other.

Extending the argument further, it’s axiomatic, or should be, that when a vendor of any sort makes the cost of a product or service more dear, he risks a loss in sales. This holds no matter what the vendor is selling — whether pencils, pancakes . . . or parking. A higher price equates to a disincentive, which, in this instance, is further amplified by the fact that myriad entities — not just the Authority, but all downtown retail establishments — stand to suffer should the higher cost of parking serve as an impediment to patronage.

We make this argument knowing full well the prevailing philosophy on parking and the Parking Authority: The user, as opposed to the common taxpayer, pays. It’s a sound principle — one to which we subscribe, for instance, for state road construction and maintenance. But what if, in many cases, the user and the taxpayer are one and the same? The city and its businesses lose in the end.

While we grasp fully that the Authority can ill afford to lose sight of its mission or its commitments, it still behooves us to look at the bigger picture. Downtown does not exist in a vacuum. Not only must its merchants and restaurateurs, as a general rule, compete for trade, but in the coming months, they must also regain footing lost during four months of reconstructive surgery to the mall.

Thus, as Mrs. Minor and Mr. Weber clearly intimated Tuesday, now may not be the time for an increase in parking rates. We sincerely question whether such a time will ever come — that is, if the city truly wishes to encourage, rather than discourage, patronage of its historic downtown.