Pricing What Was “Free”: Parking in Downtown Haverhill, MA


Bringing parking pricing to a downtown that has none seems like too big a hurdle for many communities today.

Faced with overwhelming evening parking demand that limited the growth of restaurants in its vibrant historic downtown, the city of Haverhill, Massachusetts, was unwilling to introduce pricing. As businesses grew, daytime employee demand exceeded the capacity of the existing downtown parking garage. Brick mills were turned into condos, and new residents’ complaints about parking went unanswered. Committees met for years to discuss the problem.

Tackling Haverhill’s parking problems took tough decision-making. Ultimately, the city was pushed into a decision when the regional transit provider was awarded a grant to build a new garage for its commuter rail and bus station in the heart of the downtown. Haverhill’s Mayor knew that if it was the only pay facility in town, his streets would be flooded with commuters’ cars and the garage might fail. With funds from business interests, a consultant was hired to conduct a study, which found that the busy core was a mess in the evening, while many peripheral spaces went unused all day long.

To solve the problem, the study recommended a simple pricing plan, using just two price tiers to make core spaces available and encourage the use of remote spaces. Public reaction was very mixed. Many supporters welcomed the idea while many opponents, resistant to change, perhaps hoped the city would just write more parking tickets. With a nine-member council, the Mayor had a long fight. But the looming garage opening date pushed all but two councilors to approve the plan in early 2012. The final plan was tweaked to accommodate pushback from fearful merchants, resulting in on-street pricing only during the prime restaurant hours, retention of many time-limited spaces, as well as an inexpensive $15/month employee permit.

Soon thereafter, the garage opened—and remained virtually empty as predicted, with commuters parking on-street. By this point, the city had advertised for a vendor to run the parking pricing program, which would include multi-space meters to regulate parking on- and off-street. Fortunately, the city was well-advised to use ambassadors to help parkers understand the changes on day one, so when the new signs and parking meters became active in summer 2012, they were not met with the anticipated hostility. In fact, restaurateurs immediately noted that their customers could find parking more easily. Employees and residents quickly bought up permits, and garage utilization increased.

The city had wisely made their program flexible, with changes to a regulatory table easy to make, allowing permit prices to go up and regulations to simplify. Most importantly, the city calculated the minimum net surplus the program would clear for downtown improvements, and this became part of the management contract. In August, the vendor made its first $100,000 payment to the city, and downtown stakeholders will help decide how the money is spent.