Florida Keys News
Saturday, December 7, 2013
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Free holiday parking, bus service

The city of Key West will once again offer free parking downtown for holiday shopping later this month.

But those meters will stop clicking for only three days -- Dec. 23-25.

Officials also set aside two free bus travel days, Dec. 23-24, for the Lower Keys. Transit service doesn't run on Christmas Day.

Last year and in 2011, the free pre-Christmas parking was extended for five days in order to encourage locals and visitors to spend their money at downtown businesses.

In 2009, the free parking lasted for eight days.

"Every year it goes down," said Virginia Panico, executive vice president of the Key West Chamber of Commerce. "I can't understand why it's Christmas Day. It should be at least a week."

Panico said visitors often don't know about the gratis parking, but the chamber puts the word out. Locals have enjoyed the break, but since the three free days include Christmas, Panico isn't sure how that benefits residents.

"They're at home," she said.

Commissioners approved the abbreviated free-parking season by a 6-0 vote, without comment. Commissioner Mark Rossi, who has praised the tradition as a way to give back to residents and visitors, was absent Tuesday.

"We picked the days that we have the most visitor ratio downtown," said City Commissioner Teri Johnston on Friday. "It's still a nice gesture."

Key West closes down entire streets for special events throughout the year, losing parking money, Johnston pointed out. She added that she believed this is the shortest free holiday parking period offered since Key West started doing it more than 10 years ago.

"This is probably a compromise between not doing it and giving some people a break," Johnston said. "We're allowing free parking to benefit local businesses."

City staff says the gesture comes at a cost of $8,000 to $10,000 per day in revenue.

"City businesses should see some increased sales from locals and tourists who would otherwise spend money to park," said John Wilkins, the city's parking manager.

The free bus travel in Key West and the Lower Keys lasts two days: Dec. 23-24. There is no bus service on Christmas Day.

Key West will lose $1,327 per day from all routes, for a total revenue loss of $5,308, according to Norman Whitaker, director of transportation.

But more people taking the bus, versus cars, cuts down on carbon emissions and eases traffic congestion, and free rides could win over new riders who haven't used public transit before, Whitaker said in a recent memo to City Manager Bob Vitas.

The commission approved this also without comment at its meeting Tuesday.

Had the commission killed the free bus days, "the disadvantage is that the city will not play an active part in the holiday season," Whitaker's memo said.

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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