The guessing game

Honesty, they say, is almost always the best policy. But does that noble sentiment hold true in the shadowy netherworld of municipal parking decks? Some city staffers say they believe it does.

Then again, they don’t have much choice. Until broken ticket-spitters at the Wall Street, Rankin Avenue and Civic Center parking decks are repaired, the city must take it on faith that hourly parkers are telling the truth about how long they leave their cars in these facilities.

A working ticket-spitter automatically records a driver’s arrival time at the deck’s entry gate; upon leaving, the driver gives the ticket to the attendant at the exit gate. As things now stand, however, drivers simply make a mental note of their arrival time, then inform the attendant of that time when exiting the deck.

Due to a recent rate hike, hourly parking now costs exactly the same amount (60 cents per hour) whether you stow your car on the street or in a deck; parking-deck fees top out at $4 for all-day parking, defined as anything over six hours.

Since arrival times can’t be officially recorded, would it be possible to park all day in a deck and pay for only an hour? Theoretically, yes. The disabled ticket-spitters, it seems, now operate on a more rarefied level, giving deck users a chance to test their own personal integrity.

Or at least their short-term memory.

UNCA student Louise Bauso, who frequently uses the Rankin Avenue deck, wonders why the city hasn’t already taken action.

“It’s been broken ever since I got back to town [this summer] — it shouldn’t take that long to fix a ticket machine,” she protests.

Bauso, who started parking at the Rankin deck to take advantage of the special rate for library users, admits she sometimes thinks about fudging a little when asked how long she’s parked. And what she sees as the fascist attitude of some parking personnel does nothing to help balance her ethical dilemma:

“My friend rode up there on his bike to see the sunrise, and they made him get off of his bike and walk it all the way down. They wouldn’t even let him ride it. I think their power has gone to their heads, over there.”

City Revenue Manager Deborah Crowder has a different perspective: “A lot of the parkers at these decks are monthly parkers, anyway,” she notes. (Parking Superintendent Steve Thompson confirms that the Wall Street deck rents well over half of its spaces by the month).

Julian Price, a monthly parker at the Wall Street deck, says he’s spied the occasional motorist exiting the deck through the entrance gate, thus avoiding paying anything at all. He further reports that he was almost run over one evening by one such cheater, who was hurrying through the broken gate just as Price attempted to enter the garage.

Crowder, however, expresses confidence in the majority of the decks’ hourly users, denying that the occasional deviant parker could be causing any significant lost revenue: “[Lying] is always a possibility, but I think most people are pretty honest.”

And speaking of honesty, she also observes that other parts of the decks’ gate equipment (such as the exit bars) work only sporadically, confessing, “None of it is in great shape.”

Finance Director Bill Schaefer is similarly frank: “The whole system is antiquated [the Civic Center deck was completed in 1976, he says, and the Rankin and Wall Street decks 12 years later]. The gate equipment is so old that, over the past year, the manufacturer would no longer agree to maintain it — at any price. Many of the parts needed to repair it are also no longer manufactured or available from any source. … It would not be economically prudent to replace [only] the ticket-spitters, when the whole system needs to be replaced. The cost to make all the needed equipment repairs piecemeal would be much greater than the cost of replacing the entire system.”

The city’s current budget does provide for some funds for parking-deck repairs (work is expected to begin in January, or shortly thereafter). But it may take awhile to work through the backlog of needed repairs.

Still, the new parking rates, says Schaefer, “will supply enough revenue to … allow us to catch up with deferred maintenance needs from past years, that had been put off due to insufficient revenues.”

As to the delicate matter of parkers’ honesty, the director remains tactfully neutral: “That, I can’t tell you.”

(In contrast to these city workers’ hands-off approach, this reporter recalls having been roughly interrogated by an Asheville Airport employee after misplacing a parking voucher.

“You mean to tell me you were only here 20 minutes and you couldn’t keep track of a slip of paper?” sniffed the skeptical parking attendant, before demanding to see a driver’s license).

Meanwhile, mindful of the growing downtown-parking pressures, the city is now moving ahead with plans to site and design another parking deck, near Battery Park. The deck — which will cost at least $3 million to build, according to City Engineer Cathy Ball — will also provide parking for the Grove Arcade. The landmark structure, now being renovated, is expected to reopen as a public market next spring.

The new deck, at least, should be free from the considerable problems plaguing the city’s existing parking facilities — a good thing, if you accept Bauso’s cynical observation that downtown tourists are perhaps the most likely group to take advantage of the faulty ticket-spitters:

“They’d probably take an hour or so off their time, if they’d been here awhile. … They might think that they’re spending enough money here, anyway, so they may as well pay the smallest amount they can to park.”

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