Bloomington, Indiana – At its meeting last Thursday, Bloomington’s parking commission got a quick briefing from city garage manager Ryan Daily, about the end of first-hour-free parking in city garages downtown. That’s slated under local law for Jan. 1, 2020.

A Monday press release from the mayor’s office makes Monday, Jan. 4, 2021 the practical end of first-hour-free parking in garages.

That’s because the press release also announced some free parking during Thanksgiving and Christmas. The mayor has discretion under local law to waive parking fees “during the holiday season.”

Jan. 1 falls on a Friday, and according to the press release, Saturday parking in city garages will be free in December. Sunday garage parking is always free. So it’s Jan. 4 that will mark the dawn of a no-free-parking era in downtown Bloomington parking garages.

According to the press release, for the week of Thanksgiving—from Thursday, (Nov. 26) through Sunday (Nov. 29)—there will be no charge for street parking downtown, where meters are normally enforced, or in city garages.

The decision to end first-hour-free parking in city garages was made more than two years ago, on a 9–0 vote of the city council. Various other changes were made to parking regulations with the same ordinance.

The end of first-hour-free parking in city garages is coming about three months ahead of the opening of the new Trades District garage, which is currently in the later stages of construction. The replacement facility for the 4th Street garage is slated to open in the fall of 2021. The structure that’s rising out of the ground at 4th and Walnut is now starting to resemble a parking garage.

When the city council voted in 2018 to end any amount of free parking in city garages, starting in 2021, the prevailing rates for garages called for three hours of free parking.

In the short term, the 2018 ordinance reduced the time for free parking from three hours to one. The 2018 ordinance also sunset the new, shorter first-hour-free policy.

It was in 2015 when the council added the Morton Street garage to the set of city garages where parking was free for the first three hours. That made the three-hour-free policy uniform across city garages.

Supporting a revision of the three-hour free policy was a 2018 parking study done by Desman Design Management (DDM), at a cost of around $36,000, based on records available through the city’s online financial system. The DDM study estimated that reducing the amount of free parking from three hours to one hour would net the city $80,000.

How much more will the city of Bloomington collect when the first-hour-free policy is eliminated at the start of 2021?

Parking manager Ryan Daily told parking commissioners at their meeting last Thursday that it would be hard to estimate. Daily told them that of the total number of entry-exit tickets processed for garages, 24 percent were processed for free. At the Morton Street garage, he said, more than 1,000 people a month parked an hour for free. He said he did not know if the same 1,000 people would continue to park in city garages, after the existing rate of $0.50 per hour kicks in—even for the first hour.

Daily also said that revisiting parking garage rates generally should wait until after things had “settled”—after the new garages in the Trades District and at 4th Street have been open for a while.

The unknown impact of the COVID-19 pandemic next year, and the unknown usage pattern for the garages that are to be opened in 2021 are factors. The uncertainty means that 2021 is going to be no more predictable a year than 2020 was, with respect to parking usage and revenues and expenses, Daily said.

Daily told commissioners that the concept that he and parking services director Michelle Wahl have been talking about is parking bands. The idea would be to set a rate for the first one to three hours, and a different, higher rate for hours three to five, and then even higher rate from hours five to eight, and so on.