OCEAN CITY — Judging by the early numbers, the decision to tweak the formula with an increased hourly rate at the Inlet lot on the Fourth of July appears to have been the right one with the lot nearing capacity by mid-morning on Thursday.
After a significant drop-off in Inlet lot parking revenue on the Fourth of July last summer, the Mayor and Council on March voted to abandon the all-day, flat-rate pay structure in favor of an increased hourly rate. As a result, the Mayor and Council approved a one-day increase in the hourly parking rate at the Inlet lot from $3 to $5 on the Fourth of July only.
By early Thursday morning, the decision appeared to be achieving the desired results. At 9:45 a.m. on Thursday, resort officials reported about 976 of the Inlet’s 1,300 spaces, or about 75 percent, were already full. A little over an hour later at 11 a.m. on Thursday, 1,242 of the Inlet lot’s 1,300 spaces were full, or roughly 95 percent.
For several years, the town of Ocean City charged a flat rate to park on the Inlet lot on the Fourth of July to, among other things, alleviate the congestion often associated with several hundred cars leaving at the same time and paying before leaving at the exit booths. For example, for years the July 4th Inlet lot rates were set on a graduated scale including a $50 fee for cars entering the lot between 6 a.m. and noon, a $30 rate for cars entering the lot between noon and 3 p.m. and a $20 rate for vehicles entering the lot after 3 p.m.
In the last year of the sliding flat rate system, the Inlet lot grossed nearly $83,000 on the Fourth of July alone. Last year, however, the town implemented a new pay-by-plate parking system at the Inlet, thereby alleviating the need for paying at the exit booth when leaving the lot. Incidentally, the traditional back-ups leaving the Inlet lot after the fireworks on the Fourth last year were not alleviated, not as a result of any shortcomings of the new parking system, but rather the inability of Baltimore Avenue and downtown streets to absorb hundreds if not thousands of vehicles leaving the lot at the same time.
Nonetheless, the Inlet lot on July 4 last summer generated just over $58,000 last year. Over 4,200 vehicles entered the Inlet lot last July 4 and the average stay was around six-and-a-half hours, which is more that twice the average length of stay on the lot on a typical summer day. As a result, City Engineer Terry McGean and staff this winter reviewed the drop-off last year and recommended going back to the flat-rate system so successful in prior years.
In March, McGean recommended to the Mayor and Council going back to a flat rate of $40 all day at the Inlet lot because the new pay-by-plate system had problems with the old sliding scale on the holiday. However, after considerable debate, the Mayor and Council voted to set the Fourth of July rate at the Inlet lot to an even $5 an hour. With an average stay of over six hours, the town would still hit the same revenue mark if the flat rate of $40 all day was chosen.
The working theory is the hourly rate could encourage more turnover at the Inlet lot on the holiday. There was also the belief that those who paid a $40 all-day flat rate and did not stay throughout the day would not feel as though they had been gouged. In addition, the council believed a roughly six-hour stay at $5 an hour would amount to around $30, which is a reasonable price for prime beachfront and Boardwalk-front parking on a holiday, especially since some private lots in the downtown area were charging as much as $50 to $100.
While it will take some time to sort it all out, the decision to set the hourly rate appeared to be the right one as the lot was nearly filled to capacity by mid-morning on Thursday, 10 hours before the fireworks shows on Thursday night.