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IT SHOULDN'T BE THIS HARD TO MAKE DOWNTOWN PARKING WORK BETTER

For many months, an unpaid advisory committee with 23 members has been wrestling with the issue of parking in downtown Buffalo -- most specifically, how parking should be governed. It was, by all accounts, a diligent band that met weekly at 8 a.m. in City Hall.

The panel was dealing with an important issue. After all, in downtown Buffalo and many other downtowns in this country, the cost and inconvenience of parking help give a competitive advantage to suburban shopping malls and office parks.

Unfortunately, the advisory group followed the lead of an earlier parking committee by proposing a governing structure that is too complicated and too decentralized.

It was a year ago that the first committee used the word "fragmented" to describe the troublesome way downtown parking lots and ramps are managed. There are roles for the mayor-appointed Board of Parking, the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, City Hall development companies, two state agencies, the city Parking Violations Bureau and Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps Inc., a non-profit ramp management organization controlled by the business sector.

Small wonder it's hard to develop systematic policy and direction.

To unravel the mess, the second committee starts out in the right direction by recommending a "centralized citywide parking department," headed by a commissioner, presumably appointed by the mayor, to "consolidate all parking functions in one entity." Ah, simplicity.

But then the planners veer off course by recommending a needless complication: a non-profit Parking Corporation with which the city would be required to contract for operation of downtown ramps and lots, plus hospital ramps.

In turn, the corporation could choose to subcontract operations through competitive bidding.

The corporation would have final say on off-street parking rates and also be involved in on-street parking policies in downtown. The corporation's board would be structured so that eight of the 12 members would be from the downtown business community.

The recommended structure has all the fingerprints of a compromise trying to balance the interests of City Hall, as the ramps' owner, and interests of downtown business. Sometimes compromise produces unwieldy results, and this is one of those times. Fragmentation all over again.

The city should forget about creating the corporation and settle for clarity in the form of a regular city department with powers over parking.

Policy and finances would be in the hands of the mayor and the Common Council, just as other city functions are. These officials are elected to run things, after all, and can be held accountable by the voters. Let's give them no excuses along the lines of: "Not me. The corporation did it."

The second committee's report is now in the hands of Mayor Masiello, who formed the panel. Enough committees. Masiello ought to start action toward a City Charter amendment that would simply centralize the operation of city-owned parking ramps and lots in one department without the encumbrance of a separate corporation.

If an advisory committee of downtown interests is wanted, fine, but decision-making should rest with elected officials. They are the accountable ones; accountable to all Buffalo residents.

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