DOWNTOWN Baltimore's nightmarish parking shortage usually hits drivers when they have no time to spare.
Late for an appointment, lawyer Jon Laria recently wound up driving in circles for 15 minutes and fuming. None of the garages had vacant spaces. He ultimately found a parking meter several blocks from his meeting. "Everybody is grumpy because it's so difficult to find parking," he says.
City studies estimate that the central business district has 5,500 to 8,200 fewer parking spaces than it needs. Whatever the number, premium spots in the Inner Harbor command increasingly steep prices. One garage charges $20 for the first three hours. Monthly parking costs up to $225.
Up to now, the parking crunch has been a downtown problem. But construction in Inner Harbor East - where two hotels and a retail complex are going up - and big development plans for nearby Fells Point mean the problem is spreading to residential neighborhoods as well. Fells Point alone is estimated to need 1,200 additional spaces.
Since taking office in December, Mayor Martin O'Malley has been scrambling to get a handle on the parking issues. He has designated Lisa Raimundo, the Downtown Partnership's director of economic development, as the "point person."
Meanwhile, the General Assembly enabled the creation of a parking authority. Once a similar bill clears the City Council, the new agency can start coordinating parking matters, including the construction of new garages.
These are promising signs. But much more needs to he done. In the end, everything hinges on the resolve of Mayor O'Malley, who has to make the required political decisions.
Over the past 50 years, Baltimore has spent huge amounts of money on public parking. Since 1983 alone, $150 million has gone to building garages and open-air lots. Nearly 7,000 spaces are now available in multi-level structures around the city. An additional 2,500 vehicles can be accommodated on surface lots and 9,530 at on-street meters.
The problem is more complicated than inadequate numbers. For example, two Lexington Market garages, with close to 2,000 spaces, have vacancies because they are in an area deemed undesirable and not within an easy walk from downtown offices. Similarly, spaces are plentiful around the Camden Yards sports complexes but they are so distant a shuttle is required to service downtown.
In contrast, garages in the Inner Harbor and the prestigious Pratt St. office corridor are bursting at seams. The situation has grown steadily worse as outlying surface lots have been lost to redevelopment.
Toward the end of his 12-year administration, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke recognized the seriousness of the downtown parking crunch. In November, 1998, he announced plans to construct seven new parking garages for the city's downtown. He backed his pledge with money: $75 million was earmarked for construction.
He also created a parking czar's job. But when a leading out-of-town expert turned it down, the task of coordinating was relegated to the gigantic Department of Public Works, where it got lost.
A year and a half later, nothing has happened. With businesses or historic preservationists opposing proposed garage locations, not a single site has been approved. Even under the most optimistic scenario, the first new parking garage is two and a half years from being built.
New construction, though, is only part of the answer.
If the parking crunch is to be alleviated, two tough political questions must be revisited:
The zoning ordinance has to be revised.
At the present time, the requirements are so lax that a 50,000 square-foot building can be built without a single parking space and only 25 spaces are mandated for a l00,000-square-foot structure. For a hotel, one space is deemed sufficient for each eight rooms; for apartment buildings, one space for every four units.
These ratios are unrealistically low and make no sense. They are a chief source of downtown parking shortage.
* City Hall has to rethink the Schmoke administration's willigness to negotiate private, subsidized parking deals with nearly every company that threatened to move out of Baltimore.
These deals evolved into a standard operating procedure over several years.
In 1991, when an asphalt paving and construction company demanded sweeteners in order to keep its 500 employees here, the city did nothing. But by 1995, when Alex. Brown Inc. made noises about abandoning its hometown, the mayor was ready to construct a new garage to accommodate the venerable investment banking firm.
Since then, several other companies have been given guaranteed spaces at subsidized rates. As leases come up for renewal, more firms are lining up at City Hall, asking for preferential treatment.
This is not a healthy situation.
These arrangements - and the side deals they have generated -may be defensible from a business retention standpoint.
But as various firms compare terms or complain about unfulfilled promises, they are causing endless headaches for the city. Those deals also aggravate the downtown parking shortage: They make rational parking management impossible and discourage ride-sharing or the use of mass transit.
Since the city's 1949 transportation master plan, study after study has recommended locating all-day commuter parking facilities away from the city center. Little has been done to achieve this. As a result, up to 65 percent of Baltimore's downtown commuters drive - usually without additional passengers. In Philadelphia, the bulk of commuters use mass transit and only about 35 percent bring their cars downtown.
One reason for Baltimoreans' over-reliance on cars is their unhappiness over the buses, Metro and light-rail operated by the state Mass Transit Administration. Mass transit service is perceived to be too inadequate or inconvenient even when a monthly pass might make economic sense.
The consumers' verdict is not without justification. Schedules are too often unreliable. And the transit system is so poorly designed the metro and light rail never interconnect.
A parking authority alone will be incapable of solving these problems. It will end up being just another layer of bureaucracy unless Mayor O'Malley takes a leadership role in tackling the parking nightmare.
Since the authority does not have powers to condemn land or issue bonds, the mayor's involvement is essential in settling garage location controversies and financing questions.
Moreover, the mayor has to see to it that long-neglected transportation planning is finally begun in Baltimore. City officials have to sit down with MTA experts and hatch workable solutions to moving people to the business district and around downtown.
These are pivotal questions where logistical arrangements follow political decisions.