Montreal made almost twice as much in 2007 from parking revenues as it did the previous year and City Hall says: mission accomplished.
Stationnement de Montréal (SDM) handed the city just under $40-million last year, up from over $21-million in 2006. A staggering increase in a single year, but “what’s staggering is that parking meter rates were frozen for so long,” said Councillor Marvin Rotrand.
“What’s staggering is that from 1994 to 2001, the former administration neglected public transit,” said Rotrand, who speaks for the city on the parking issue. “It’s hard to believe that our commercial streets had $0.50 per hour parking.”
Cheap spots are now a distant memory. The city raised rates at the beginning of last year to between $1 and $3 per hour, depending on the area. Coupled with the systematic elimination of parking spots in the downtown core, the city’s strategy seems to be to cram the public transit option down the throats of Montrealers whether it works for them or not. What makes the tactic curious though is that according to Wendell Cox of the Frontier Center for Public Policy and one of North America’s experts on urban transport, no major city has ever been able to reduce private car use by more than 2% regardless of any combination of higher parking rates or increased public transit.
“Ils sont fous…Ils font qu’est ce qu’ils veulent,” said Ibrahim Salame, who owns a Lebanese restaurant on de Maisonneuve Blvd. “Quand ils ont construit la piste cyclable, cela n’a pas aider.”
The bike path eliminated parking spots along the south side of de Maisonneuve from Berri St. to Atwater Ave., giving patrons of boulevard businesses fewer options and more time spent circling the block, say some merchants.
“Il y a sept ou huit places de moins et on n’a pas de parking sous-terrain,” said furniture salesman Christophe Lepère, adding that clients routinely rush out to feed meters, not wanting to throw in $6 for the full two hours. “C’est perpetuelle. Ils vont metre l’argent quart-d’heure par quart-d’heure. C’est assez chère.”
Lepère works for Mobilia–not exactly a mom and pop shop–but nonetheless sees the exodus from downtown luxury boutiques to the big box stores in the suburbs whose amble parking lots are becoming more and more appealing. Rotrand is a fierce critic of the boxes, going so far as to say that they “kill cities.” He still defends the sharp increase in meter rates however, saying Montrealers have been getting bargain basement prices for too long.
The $3 per hour Montrealers pay at the most expensive meters is on par with the rates in Toronto and Ottawa, but cheaper than the $4 per hour charged in Calgary and Vancouver (soon to be $5, in the latter).
SDM spokesperson Michel Philibert also thinks the higher rates are good for business.
“When I was at UQÀM, it was $1.50 per hour. Ten years later, it was still the same,” he said. “We’re seeing the difference right away; there’s a better rotation of vehicles. Constant meter-feeding is now too expensive, and that’s perfect. It’s what we want.”
Under the old system, Philibert said, it was feasible for workers to park their cars on the street the entire day and pay less than they would in a lot. That clogged up spots that would otherwise be used by shoppers. He also noted that Ste-Catherine St. merchants have seen a steady increase in the number of transactions. Rotrand said there’s been no significant change in the occupancy rate, either.
“Merchants are not aided by low rates,” Rotrand said. But those The Métropolitain spoke with say the new, unforgiving parking system does hurt business. It’s not necessarily the $3 per hour that stings, but the extension of operating hours until 9 p.m., the two-hour limit and the lack of free parking on weekends. SDM, and by extension the city, can also make money on the same spot, at the same time twice over: Meters are automatically reset when more time is added and a driver parking a car cannot benefit from the charitable excesses of the spot’s previous tenant.
SDM, which is not a city agency but rather a firm operated by the Chambre de commerce du Montréal métropolitain, actually made over $57-million in revenue in 2007. Minus operating expenses and funds set aside for Chambre grants and investments, what’s left is the roughly $40-million taken in last year by the city. Montreal is responsible strictly for enforcement (the fines are another cash cow entirely) while SDM handles the maintenance and daily operation of the city’s meters and many of its parking lots.
No rate increases are expected for 2008; SDM revenue therefore should remain roughly the same. But the general trend is pointing up and with the daily occupancy rate hovering around the 100 per cent mark, the city needs only one good reason to jack up the rates once again in the near future: Simply because they can.