Parking is a problem in Montpelier. Not only for the usual Statehouse crowd — 180 lawmakers and the 400 lobbyists and advocates who swarm the nation’s smallest state capital — but also for state employees, visitors, renters, and business owners who are trying to attract customers to their retail shops, restaurants and hotels.
State and local officials say parking has been a perennial issue in the state capital for decades, but this year things have come to a head. More people are coming to the city, in part because of the recent move of about 400 more state employees to Montpelier, and there is less room to accommodate all their vehicles.
The state is short about 600 parking spaces for state employees at the two locations when the Legislature is not in session. During the peak Statehouse months, January through April, the total parking deficit is about 840 spaces.
On Tuesday, the Vermont State Employees Association held an hourlong hearing on the issue in the House Chamber. About 150 state workers took seats normally filled by lawmakers and listened as colleagues, business owners, the Montpelier mayor and state officials talked about how the problem has compounded.
The hearing was the culmination of an effort by the union to draw attention to Montpelier’s paucity of parking. Hundreds of state employees have weighed in on the matter.
Diane Decouteau, a supervisor at the Department of Motor Vehicles, said it’s not unusual for state workers to search “like vultures” for empty spots each morning. The difficulty of finding parking affects productivity and morale, Decouteau said.
Brian Kane, general manager of the Capitol Plaza Hotel, said the parking lot behind his building has 209 spots — all of which are full by 8:30 a.m. He doesn’t have capacity for conference and restaurant visitors, and that fact negatively impacts his ability to attract customers. Several motorcoach operators won’t come to Montpelier anymore, he said, because there are no parking spaces for tour buses in the city. About 400 a year pass through the area on the way to Morse Farm, he said, and Montpelier misses out on that business.
When a city doesn’t accommodate buses with parking spaces, he said it sends the message that “clearly we don’t want you.”
Kane said Burlington merchants demanded that that city provide parking for tour buses. There are now five spaces downtown, he said.
The first step to recovery in Kane’s view? Admission that the city has a problem. He suggested that the city and state devise a master plan to incorporate parking and transit services so that “all parties benefit.”
The city bans street parking at night in the winter season to allow road crews to clear streets of snow, and this creates a problem for renters who already have a tough time finding places to park.
State and city officials say they are working on solutions, but don’t count on a new parking garage among them.
Though a garage near the Statehouse is at the top of Mayor John Hollar’s list of solutions, neither the city, nor the state has the money to invest in a multi-million dollar facility at a time when the ultimate cost — and fate — of the Waterbury State Office Complex is still up in the air.
“I recognize this is a serious problem,” Hollar said. “You face daily hassle and stress trying to get to work on time. It also puts limits on the vitality of our city. It’s hard to shop here and go out to eat.”
Hollar said he is committed to working on the issue, and he has appointed a parking committee to address short and long term solutions. “We need to address the longterm; we need to consider building a garage,” Hollar said. But the mayor acknowledged that the state faces significant financial challenges with the state office complex over the next few years.
Michael Obuchowski, commissioner of the Department of Buildings and General Services, said Montpelier actually has 130 more parking spaces this year than last. In addition, the state has made a concerted effort to encourage workers to use the Department of Labor parking lot and take a short bus ride to the downtown.
The commissioner said a garage would be costly ($25,000 per parking space) and would need to be rebuilt in 15 years because of winter deterioration factors. A garage that would hold up longer, he said, would be even more expensive to build.
“The construction of a parking garage is a last choice option in my opinion,” Obuchowski said.
“We have examined a multitude of possible solutions,” he continued. “I don’t think there is one solution to the problem I think we have to employ all the ideas.”
Those ideas include encouraging state workers to walk to work, carpool and use shuttle services. The department, he said, is considering better credentialing and enforcement for parking spaces, unreserving spaces at a time certain, installing bike racks, providing incentives for state employees who use public transit or carpool.