Drive into Boston this holiday season, shop at the stores, park for free -- but don't overstay the welcome.
The city is again promoting free parking for two hours at all of central Boston's 7,200 meters, starting today and including each Saturday during December. The program, offered for the last 17 years, is designed to give city retailers a boost by letting customers park free, as occurs at the big suburban shopping malls.
But city statistics show that those who stay longer than the free two hours on the parking holidays are getting hit with $25 over-the-time-limit tickets twice as often as the average number of tickets on a typical day.
A total of 811 such tickets were issued over the four free Saturdays in December 2003, or an average of 202 per day. That average would translate to $5,050 in fines per day.
By contrast, about 100 such tickets are issued on a typical day, equaling $2,500 in fines. A total of about 29,500 "over-meter-limit" tickets are issued during a typical year, and they account for about $737,000 of the $63 million the city takes in annually in parking fines.
The city is not targeting holiday shoppers, said James Mansfield, director of community affairs for the Boston Transportation Department. The same number of parking enforcement officers, about 30, are deployed on the free Saturdays as any other day, he said.
"We put a time limit on it, because we want other people to have the chance to come in and go shopping downtown, and we want to give as many people as possible the opportunity to park there as we can," Mansfield said. "We're not about making money. We're in the business of managing parking."
Mansfield said many drivers stay beyond the two-hour limit, because they "think it's a shot at not getting a parking ticket. That happens on a normal day. But the signs that go up for the free holiday parking are very clear about the two-hour limit."
Gene Beraldi, owner of Beacon Hill Wines & Spirits on Charles Street, said he appreciates the two hours of free parking for customers, but does not want drivers penalized for exceeding the two-hour limit.
"That sounds like it's a way for them to write more parking tickets," Beraldi said. "People strolling up and down this street, stopping for lunch -- that's going to take more than two hours."
On the other hand, there has to be a limit, he said, because all kinds of long-term parkers would flock to Charles Street and just leave their cars there.
Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association, which represents about 300 businesses, said retailers are enthusiastic about the free holiday parking program.
"I don't think they go out and try to catch people after two hours," she said. "They want to be fair and give everybody the opportunity to park in those spaces."
If shoppers think they will be longer than two hours, she said, they should park in a garage and have their tickets validated at the stores they visit for a discount.
Others question the idea of enticing people to drive into the city, potentially adding to gridlock and pollution.
"Free parking in the city is fine, but if the state wants to make a dent in traffic congestion and air quality, they should offer free parking at MBTA parking spots as well," said Jeremy Marin, spokesman for the Sierra Club. "This is a perfect opportunity to encourage more use of the T, and free parking -- and maybe free service -- would be a great way to do that."
Tracey Ganiatsos, a spokeswoman for the Boston Transportation Department, said there is no evidence that free holiday parking draws an unusually large number of drivers. She also said that as a rule, there is much less congestion in the city on Saturdays.
"This is specifically designed to provide an incentive for people to take advantage of Boston's retail districts during the competitive shopping season," she said. "We always encourage the use of public transportation. But there are commuters who take the train into Boston midweek but prefer to drive on the weekend."
Anthony Flint can be reached at email@example.com.
Free parking, more tickets
The city is offering two hours of free parking at any of the 7,200 meters in central Boston today, the four Saturdays in December, and Jan. 1. But statistics show that more tickets are issued for staying at meters too long on the parking holidays than on typical days.
Average ''over-meter-limit" tickets issued in the four free Saturdays in December 2003: 202
Average total fines per day (at $25 per ticket): $5,050
Average ''over-meter-limit" tickets issued daily in 2003-04: 100
Average total fines per day: $2,500
Average total daily revenue from meters: $86,400
SOURCE: Boston Transportation Department