Sea, sand and parking

June 27, 2005

AN INCREASE IN parking fines is not normally a cause for celebration, but in the case of Ocean City, we must make an exception. As of July 1, parking at an expired meter could result in a $15 ticket. It used to cost $5. But here's the problem with the old fine: Since meters charge $1 per hour, it was actually cheaper for the all-day beach-goer to save his quarters and take the ticket. Drivers can moan about the expense, but at least balance has been restored to the resort's parking economics.

The City Council's decision to triple the parking fine is just the latest volley in Ocean City's ongoing war with traffic congestion. The real estate market may be booming with luxury condominiums sprouting like cattails along the bay, but the town's traffic jams can wash away the good will of tourists faster than a rogue wave. The Saturday backups on U.S. 50 and Route 90 are bad enough, but rare is the summer evening when Coastal Highway isn't reduced to a slow crawl to and from the boardwalk.

Freeing up parking spaces can help. The council has also given police the authority to tow and impound cars with $100 or more in unpaid parking fines. It's a law clearly aimed at out-of-state residents who thumb their noses at parking rules. Last year, the total uncollected fines from out-of-staters was greater than the total parking fines collected ($58,000 compared with $52,000).

A far more ambitious solution is on the drawing board. The State Highway Administration has begun studying how best to replace Route 50's Harry W. Kelley Memorial Bridge. The aging drawspan not only breeds monster backups on the half-hour, but it's an obstacle for the shuttle buses from the West Ocean City free parking lot, one of the city's best parking alternatives. A bridge tall enough to permit boat traffic and wide enough to accommodate bus and biking lanes would be as welcome as a beach umbrella on a hot afternoon in July.

Finally, the town needs to persuade more vacationers to take the bus for trips up and down Coastal Highway. For just $2, visitors can ride the buses all day. And with parking fines now set at $15, the economics of that deal should be a selling point, too.

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