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Whistler's parking woes

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If you thought Whistler was expensive before, things are about to get even pricier. Pay parking has arrived in the resort. The new fees are not sitting well with locals and tourists and are only fueling mounting anti-Olympic sentiments.

User pay parking had been on the books for some time, but it's no coincidence that it's being unraveled in time for the Olympics. Most business owners say they were never consulted prior to pay parking being instituted.

I find it ironic that over $650 million was been spent on upgrading the Sea to Sky Highway and expanding the "vehicular conduit," yet there's no place to park when you arrive.

While the municipality claims that "revenues from pay parking will allow the municipality to repay the capital costs for parking lot upgrades and the debris barrier construction over 20 years and provide significant funding for transit programs," the new user pay scheme is seen by many residents as another tax grab cloaked under the guise of "sustainability."

As a car owner, I know there's a true cost to driving. North American drivers are used to free parking at work, at home and at malls. I remember being in Amsterdam and watching a mom with her three kids and a stroller riding together on one bike. But unfortunately, we don't live in Holland. It's taken us over 100 years to get into this mess and we're not getting out of it overnight.

While I favour using less fossil fuels and designing car-free cities, the timing couldn't be worse. Tourist visits to Whistler are down given the global economic downturn and new U.S. passport requirements. Others are staying away to avoid the price gouging that typically accompanies Olympic host towns. With a lift ticket already at $87, an extra $10 per day can make or break a person's decision to visit.

Whistler's mayor claims that pay parking will increase fitness levels and reduce GHG emissions, but he forgets that the town's engine is fueled entirely by tourism and that the majority of visitors still take a plane and rent a car to get here.

New Parking Fees
Underground pay parking is now in effect at the Telus Conference Centre (previously free). A $10 flat rate applies to day parking and $5 rate for evenings. Parking meter rates on Main St. have increased from $1 an hour to $2 an hour.

In preparation for the Games, four of the five skier parking lots will be paved. According to the municipality's website, "the total budget for the parking upgrade for Lots 1, 2 and 3 is $4.6 million and will include: paving the lots, lighting, ramps, stairs and stormwater improvements."

Post-Games, three lots will be converted to pay parking (Lots 1, 2 and 3). Vanoc will have full use of all the day lots during the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games and will be closed to the public from Jan. 15 to March 1, 2010.

User Pay - Nay or Yay?

The pay parking issue appears to have awakened residents' political psyche. The mayor's office has been bombarded with letters of opposition from angry residents, tourists and business owners.

While locals feel they're being "nickel and dimed," Whistler's Mayor, Ken Melamed didn't think twice before voting himself a hefty pay raise or purchasing new Arc'teryx jackets and 2010 Olympic tickets for municipal staff. In the meantime, Whistler's taxes are expected to increase by over 19 per cent over three years and many workers are being laid off.

An online petition opposing pay parking has been set up at http://freewhistlerparking.com complete with videos and photos of the empty underground parking lots. After only two weeks, there were 556 survey responses, and 492 voted against pay parking (an overwhelming 90 per cent support).

A Facebook group has received over 1,000 visitors.

Where's the carrot?

Tourism Whistler's website says, "The Village was designed to be a car-free town centre where people could flow like water."

However, the rest of Whistler was never designed to be car-free. The majority of residents have to drive their garbage and recyclables to a designated drop-off location, since Whistler lacks curbside garbage pick-up.

It costs $2 to ride the bus in Whistler and you only travel 4 or 5 stops in one direction. A very expensive ride when compared to Vancouver, where $2.50 allows you to travel across the Lower Mainland in any direction for 90 minutes. You can hop off for errands and then hop back on again and access the bus, Sea Bus or SkyTrain.

There are now fresh rumours that Whistler's bus fares are about to increase once again.

Whistler has a free village shuttle, but it only runs from Marketplace (Village North) to the Upper Village, and doesn't benefit either local residents or those venturing outside the village.

What is the incentive to take public transit into town when it takes an hour on a crowded bus or less than 10 minutes to drive? Plus, there's a good chance you're going to get whacked on the head with a snowboard while riding the bus.

Significant changes need to be made to our local bus routes and ticket prices before adopting pay parking. I simply avoid the village all together now.

I rode my bike into town the other day, but couldn't find any bike racks and didn't want to leave my bike unattended. So I turned around and came back home.

The ski resort of Vail, Colorado charges for parking, but it offers a complimentary bus system throughout town that runs year-round and is used by both locals and visitors.

Vauban, a small town in Germany offer residents an alternative - new residents are offered a free transit pass (if they don't plan to own a car). A parking space is available for $29,000 and located on the edge of town. As of 2009 (according to Wikipedia), 70% of the residents in this car-free suburb had given up their cars entirely. This is the kind of forward thinking that Whistler needs.

Whistler's New Secretive Transit Facility

Whistler taxpayers are also paying 53 per cent of the costs towards Whistler's new transit facility (while B.C. Transit pays for the other 47 per cent). We still have no idea what the final costs will be for the multi-million dollar facility. B.C. Transit is keeping its mouth shut and speaking only behind closed doors with mayor and council. Once the facility is completed, it will be owned completely by B.C. Transit. What kind of a foolish deal is that? Why doesn't B.C. Transit provide Whistler residents with free bus service for five years in exchange for providing the costs for 60 per cent of the facility?

Final Outcome

If the intent of pay parking is to generate revenue for the resort, it's having the opposite effect. People are avoiding the village and driving to Squamish, where groceries are cheaper and parking is free. Pay parking is good for the environment, but bad for local businesses.

Local businesses are quickly realizing that the five-ring circus will not be delivering the promised avalanche of profits.

Pay parking is here to stay post-Olympics. Whistler is proposing daily rates of $8 in the winter and $12 in the summer. It's only a matter of time before Intrawest starts charging for parking in Creekside. I can envision a day when Whistler Blackcomb will be offering free parking with the purchase of a lift ticket.

While Lots 4 and 5 will remain free to the public, most of these spaces will be gobbled up by resort employees, who drive in from neighbouring Pemberton and Squamish to work.

While it might make sense to have pay parking in the village, the RMOW needs to provide more viable alternatives to get people out of their cars. Let's start with a free transit pass or improved bus schedules.

As one resident wrote on the FreeWhistlerParking website, "The love is starting to leave...."

I think it left a long time ago.

 

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