Commuters who use the Croton Harmon Station lot have been upset lately about the steep increase in parking fees. Who blames them? The lot still floods. Traffic is still snarls. The June 2007 hike is the second, steep rate increase in three years.
The Croton Harmon parking lot clearly needs ongoing infrastructure investments to remain a transportation asset for the region and, hence, a fiscal asset for the village. More importantly, this transit hub could be an economic lever for Croton, well beyond simple parking fees, but will not if the simple parking fees irritate the village’s customer base.
Why are Croton’s station parking fees going up so much? During the April 9, 2007 public hearing on the Croton’s budget, the mayor stated, “We do look at it as business and unfortunately we do have to raise rates.”
Since the cost of operating the parking lot has not gone up, an increase in some other “business” must dictate a parking rate hike.
Quite a few commuters spoke up in protest that night over the disconnect between a rate hike and lack of improvements at the lot. One non-resident responded to the mayor with, “If it is run as a business, it is not run very well. Why not hire the engineers and raise the rates after you have done something. I run a business, before I raise rates, I raise service level. You guys don’t do that.”
What is the recent history of parking rates? The village purchased the current parking lot in pieces from private hands in the early 1990s. Back then, the overall lot held fewer cars and the eastern section offered parkers a sea of mud. Flood waters reached greater depths than now—hard as that may be to believe.
Upon consolidating its ownership of the lot, Croton undertook a series of improvements such as raising the elevation of the most flood-prone area, adding curbs and drains, and staffing a daytime office to help parkers. The village also worked to have County Bee Line buses stop in front of the station, rather than skip the station as they used to.
For several years up to May 2001, the parking lot generated circa $1.5 million in revenue for the village with monthly permit fees set at $36 for residents, $54 for non-residents, and $3.50 for daily users. The lots can hold a capacity of circa 2,500 cars.
The village had undertaken a series of upgrades, such as repaving of the daily lot, better signage, restriping, more frequent litter pickups, and improved drainage for what is now Veterans Way. In June 2001, the village raised fees to $40 (11%) for residents and $70 (a whopping 30%) for non-residents and $4 (12.5%) for daily passes to help fund the ongoing improvements. The income from the lot rose to $1.76 million for the fiscal year ending May 2002.
In aftermath of 9/11 and the new Cortlandt Station lot opening, the Croton Harmon lot experienced a slight decline in the number of commuters. Annual parking revenue fell slightly over the next 2 fiscal years to $1.70 million through May of 2004. Letting the market and demographics take their course, the village chose not to raise parking rates, except to raise the daily lot rate to $5 in June 2004.
Indeed, train commuters did return in sizable numbers. By late 2004, a waiting list developed again for monthly parking permits in Croton. The village restriped the lot to increase the number of spaces available for monthly permit holders by decreasingly slightly the size of the daily lot. The Village instituted a new quarterly permit to alleviate the hassle of swapping window permits each month and to foil counterfeiters.
As more commuters moved off the waiting list to buy monthly permits, the same fee structure of $40-$70 monthly set three years earlier produced a new high of $1.98 million in parking revenue by May 2005, the close of the fiscal year.
From 1993-2004, the cost of actual improvements drove parking rate hikes. But that connection of rate hike for better service ceased in June 2005. Prior to 2005, any surplus from parking lot income helped pay for improvements at the lot itself and significant other public investments, such as the Village ‘s purchase of Croton Landing waterfront north of the Yacht Club. In short, all commuters could and did benefit from all the projects that parking income helped fund. Until June 2005.
In June 2005, the parking rates rose to $45 per month (+13%) for residents, $78 (+11%) for non-residents, while remaining at $5 for daily users. This time, no improvements took place at the parking lot. In fact, the new administration put construction plans on ice that would have improved traffic, even as the new 2005 rates took effect.
The result was instructive for the village. Parking lot income in fiscal 2005-2006 actually fell slightly under these new rates, down to $1.95 million. For the fiscal year that ends May 31, 2007, parking income may—or may not—recover to what it was prior to the 2005 rate hike.
On June 1, 2007, the second parking rate increase in three years will take effect: $50 monthly (+11%) for residents, $86 (+10%) for non-residents, and $6 (+20%) for daily passes. The fee schedule is booked on a quarterly basis, so that translates into $150 for residents ($600 per year) and $258 for non-residents ($1032 per year). No upgrades at the lot took place in the past year, nor are any planned for the next 12 months.
Under these new rates, the village projects parking lot revenue for fiscal 2007-2008 to rise by circa $330,000 to $2.3 million. Of course, when the village’s parking rates went up without lot improvements in 2005, actual parking revenue fell short of the projection and even short of matching the pre-hike income.
By coincidence, the Village’s new budget earmarks nearly the same large amount for outside legal fees ($360,000) as the parking rate hike is projected to add to income ($330,000). The 1A Croton Point Avenue waste transfer station consumes the largest slice of the Village’s legal expenses. For the past two fiscal years, this court battle has cost the village between $250,000 and $300,000 per year for attorneys’ fees.
Are the parking permit hikes outstripping the general inflation rate? Between May 2005 and June 2007, The US Consumer Price Index was under 4% inflation per year for New York. Even cumulative inflation is twice what the CPI captures, the Croton Harmon parking permit rate will still have raced well ahead with a cumulative 25% for Village residents and 26% for non-residents in those two years.
Will the parking rate hike be used for the parking lot improvements? No capital improvements at the lot have been funded for the coming fiscal year. The Village has hired a good consultant to study options for mitigating the periodic floods at the parking lot. This preliminary work is being funded with an earlier unspent public transportation grant for which the parking improvement plans were mothballed in June 2005. Hence, no current parking income is needed to pay for these preliminary engineering options.
How important is parking lot revenue to Croton? From 1998 to 2005 the parking lot income produced about half of all non-property tax revenue in Croton. The net effect of the parking lot revenue on the Croton’s property tax base is best understood by subtraction. If the parking lot revenue did not exist, property taxes would be at least 15% higher overnight. If parking revenue in the next fiscal year falls short of $2.3 million, then somebody will have to make up the difference. Who?
Editor’s Note: The author is a former Village of Croton-on-Hudson Trustee who served three terms from 2001 to 2007.