Monday, February 23, 1998
Parking nightmare begins

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

There's an odd moaning sound you suburban workers may be hearing this winter. It's the collective sticker shock of downtown commuters getting their monthly parking bills.

With a new Bengals stadium going up on the riverfront, the number of available parking places is about to take a real hit.

Not surprisingly, with demand up and supply down, prices are rising. Rising big.

Since the first of the year, some garages have hiked monthly rates by 100 percent. Many others are going up $20 or more per month. Sixty percent of the 80,000 people who work downtown drive their own car to work. Parking has been more of an art form than an investment decision. Until now.

People on a budget park on the riverfront and walk uptown. Everyone else shops around for the best deal within a decent walk from their place of business.

Now, with prices rising and competition for prime spots heating up, the mood is going from, well, anxious to ugly.

Cincinnati already has the third-fastest growing traffic congestion rate in the nation. Add parking panic and we may be known next as America's Gridlock City.

''There's an imbalance in the thinking around here,'' noted Dan Aren. The reference librarian at the downtown library is an eight-year veteran of the daily search to find a parking space. ''The city plans big structures first,'' he said. ''Then it thinks about the parking later.''

Dan is reminded of this imbalance every day on his way to work. As he looks for a place to stash his car, he passes new buildings throughout town that have replaced old parking lots.

Every year, it takes him a little longer to find a parking place. But up to now he's always found an acceptable place to leave his car. He's a typical Cincinnati parker. He doesn't have nightmares about driving downtown and finding every garage with a ''FULL'' sign out front.

Spoiled rotten

Truth be told, downtown drivers have been spoiled. I include myself in that category.

We're used to parking that's reasonably cheap, plentiful and close. If the space isn't right next to our desk, it's too far to walk. Anything more than five bucks a day is a rip-off.

''My lot's a two-minute walk from where I work,'' said Bill Cunningham, a bartender at Arnold's Bar & Grill. He's peeved that the lot's owner recently raised the monthly rate from $66 to $80.

That's not peanuts. But if Bill tended bar in downtown Chicago, he'd easily pay three times that much to park.

Eleven years ago, David Ginsburg was working in Chicago. His monthly parking rate was $195.

''Today, that price would be an incredible bargain,'' he said. As the senior vice president of Downtown Cincinnati Inc., he has fantasized about solving Cincinnati's parking problem.

''We could build a few parking garages the size of skyscrapers and not charge at all for downtown parking,'' he said. ''But the traffic jam that would cause would be so big no one could get downtown to take advantage of it.''

Park and talk

If we want to be a major-league city, we're going to have to get used to some major-league parking prices. And, it wouldn't hurt to adopt a big-city attitude toward mass transportation.

With downtown parking becoming tighter and more expensive, a transportation summit is in order. Short-term solutions need to be addressed. (Hey, city council? What's on your agenda?)

We commuters need to get serious about taking the bus and car-pooling. Long-term plans - subways, light rail, bus lanes, river taxis - should be dusted off and discussed.

A Cincinnati transportation summit could help get the discussion going. Get different people involved.

The first problem will be finding a good place to park.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

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