OCEAN CITY — A clearly divided Mayor and Council this week approved reducing the grace period for free parking at the Inlet parking lot from the current 30 minutes to 20 minutes in the interest of reducing congestion times at the popular parking area.
During last week’s Transportation Committee meeting, officials voted to adjust the paid parking structure at the Inlet lot to 20-minute increments in an effort to reduce the need for coin change and keep the line of vehicles attempting to leave the lot at certain busy times. The intent is to adjust the fee schedule at the Inlet lot in order to make the increments come out rounded to the whole dollar, eliminating the need for coin change and thereby speeding up the transaction times.
Under the proposed adjustments, the first 20 minutes would be free, 21 minutes to 40 minutes would cost $1, 41 minutes to 60 minutes would cost $3 and each additional 20-minute period would cost another $1. The handicap fee schedule would be adjusted in kind with a 60-minute free grace period, with a $5 fee for 61 to 100 minutes and $6 for 101 to 120 minutes.
However, a by-product of the proposed changes to the fee schedule at the Inlet lot would be a reduction of the free parking grace period from the current 30 minutes to 20 minutes. The thinking is many vehicles enter the lot simply to drive through and look at the Inlet and the ocean, or to pick up other individuals enjoying the beach or Boardwalk. On Tuesday, Public Works Director Hal Adkins reiterated the proposed alterations would reduce the need for coin change, thereby speeding up the transaction process.
“In an effort to increase efficiency and avoid congestion, we’re considering making changes to the configuration to eliminate the need for coin change,” he said.
However, some on the council voiced concern over the reduction of the free grace period.
“Why can’t we keep the free time at 30 minutes?” said Councilman Matt James. “I would like to see it stay at 30 minutes. That way, you all can still get what you need in terms of reducing congestion. I know a lot of people are running in there to do something quick and sometimes it takes 20 minutes just to leave the lot.”
Councilman Dennis Dare explained the reasoning behind the reduction in the grace period had its roots in the effort to eliminate coin change.
“In order to get rid of coins, the recommendation is to move to 20-minute increments,” he said. “When it used to be parking meters, people just drove through to look at the ocean if they were arriving for the first time, or to pick up somebody at the amusements. The reason to get rid of coins it to make the process faster and eliminating the congestion. Twenty minutes is still plenty of time to pick somebody up or drive through to look at the ocean.”
Council President Lloyd Martin said the 20-minute grace period should be sufficient for those simply entering the lot to pick up people after a day at the beach or an evening on the Boardwalk.
“Years ago, nobody had cell phones,” he said. “Now, everybody has a cell phone and they can say exactly where they are when they need to be picked up. Adjusting the price and eliminating coins will move the congestion out of there quicker.”
James, however, said he understood the concept of eliminating coin change, but still pushed for keeping the grace period at 30 minutes.
“I understand the reasoning for eliminating change, but isn’t a free ticket quicker to process than a paid ticket?,” James asked.
Public Works Maintenance Director Tom Dy explained vehicles entered the Inlet lot and exited before the current 30-minute grace period expired around 95,000 times out of over 500,000 transactions at the lot. He said it was uncertain how that number would change if the grace period was reduced to 20 minutes and what the economic impact of that might be.
Adkins said there was likely no way of determining just how many vehicles utilized their entire 30-minute free parking grace period or how many simply got in and out quickly.
“How many of those 95,000 are actually staying in there the full 20 or 30 minutes?,” he said. “We probably don’t know, but my guess is the majority might be staying seven, eight or 10 minutes. We might be laboring over an issue that really isn’t that important.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman said he was fine with reducing the free grace period to 20 minutes, pointing out many other jurisdictions begin charging for parking from the time a vehicle enters a paid parking lot.
“No parking lot I’ve ever seen offers a free grace period,” he said. “After hearing everything, I’m okay with reducing it to 20 minutes.”
However, Hartman diverted the discussion to the issue of a maximum fee for a lost ticket. The proposal on the table called for increasing the maximum fee for a lost ticket to $72. The thinking is, someone could park at the Inlet lot all day or even overnight and simply claim they lost their ticket and they had only been there a few hours. However, Hartman said most lost ticket claims were likely legitimate and the $72 maximum charge was somewhat exorbitant.
“I do have a concern with the maximum charge for a lost ticket,” he said. “I would hate to ruin somebody’s vacation and I think that could happen. I would hate to ruin somebody’s vacation if they truly lost their ticket. If there are a few that are getting over on us and getting around the system, I’m okay with that.”
However, Councilmember Mary Knight, who earlier made a motion to approve the Inlet lot fee schedule, was not initially open to reducing the maximum fee for a lost ticket to $48.
“I don’t want to change the motion,” she said. “I can see somebody sleeping in their car and leaving it at the Inlet lot for 24 hours because it’s cheaper at $48 for a lost ticket. I can see people saying I’ll spend the night right here.”
Dy explained there were safeguards in place to prevent visitors from parking at the Inlet lot for extended periods of time or even overnight.
“We only had about 50 cases of lost tickets last year,” he said. “The police are very vigilant about people sleeping in their cars and our supervisors are very good about working with people who have truly lost their tickets.”
Dy said in most cases lot attendants and supervisors were willing to work with families or individuals who could not locate their entry ticket.
“We always work with families to resolve this,” he said. “We don’t want to ruin anybody’s day. Maybe they went in the ocean with their ticket in their pocket and we can almost always work something out. I can’t remember any occasion when somebody was charged the full $72 for a lost ticket.”
The discussion then reverted back to the proposed fee changes and the reduction of the grace period to 20 minutes.
Mayor Rick Meehan said it was a misconception that changing the fees at the Inlet lot was somehow a money grab by the city.
“This is not about revenue,” he said. “This is about reducing congestion. Anything we can do to get that line moving faster will make a lot of people happy. I can tell you when it’s late at night and you have your family and kids loaded up, moving that line to get out faster will make a lot more people happier than a few put off by the shorter grace period.”
After considerable debate, the council voted 4-3 to adopt the changes for the 2017 season with James, Gehrig and Hartman opposed. As a result, the free grace period will be reduced to 20 minutes, the fees will be adjusted to 20-minute increments in order to avoid coin change and the maximum fee for a lost ticket will remain at $72.