Parking paradigm

Citizens in Bar Harbor are engaged in a robust debate over a proposed parking garage in the “Backyard” parking lot behind the Criterion Theatre. Most of the debate has centered on the appropriateness and proportions of the garage itself. But the ultimate decision on whether or not to move forward holds great import, for years to come, concerning downtown’s entire way of life.

How to fund the garage without the need for a subsidy from taxpayers is the dilemma. User fees from the garage itself would be inadequate. Paid parking would be required on most downtown streets and in other municipal parking lots.

Worries that workers and daily visitors would then move to parking on nearby residential streets are well-founded. That, in turn, prompts a related proposal for permit-only parking in residential areas. The parking garage obviously creates a domino effect, extending far beyond the actual structure.

One current suggestion is first to impose a paid parking fee, then see how it is received by the public. That’s a possibility. Should the citizenry decide paid parking is too unpalatable or cumbersome, it could be reversed. If the fee prove workable, funds then would be available to build the garage.

Years ago, Bar Harbor earnestly experimented with one-way traffic on some downtown arteries with angled parking on both sides. Two years later, in 1990, the system was abandoned following a petition and subsequent referendum vote. The reversal required folks to change their habits, but no major cost was incurred, and no long-term harm was done.

But once a $6 million parking garage is built, there will be no turning back. Paid parking throughout town, permit parking on residential streets and the associated enforcement actions would need to be in place throughout the entire bond issue repayment period, likely two decades or more.

Were such a reversal to occur, once the parking garage is built and paid parking is in place, the town would have no choice but to make up any revenue shortfall via taxation.

Some disapprove of a parking garage based on its appearance and potential deleterious affect on small town character. Others object to a complex public-private partnership with a major developer. Still others believe a line needs to be drawn concerning open-ended accommodation of more and more automobiles. That debate is more than a century old.

What first needs to be weighed is how the parking garage might change the town’s long-term quality of life. Whether the potential benefits and positive impacts warrant upending the entire downtown parking paradigm for two decades or more is a fair question.

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