A car sits at an expired parking meter in Portland on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. A little-used city program subsidizes parking costs for low-income downtown workers. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — All told, between street-side spaces and multi-story garages, the city boasts somewhere around 15,000 downtown parking spaces.

However, many have a two-hour limit and nearly none are free, making them less than ideal for those working all day in Portland.

But a program administered by the Portland Downtown business association and funded by City Hall is aiming to help low-wage earners by providing free parking, up to six hours a day, when working their shifts.

The subsidized parking scheme has run for the better part of a decade but is not well known. Only a handful of people currently utilize it each month. That’s why Portland Downtown is making a push this month to let people in on the secret.

“Our goal is to help low-wage downtown workers,” said Portland Downtown Executive Director Cary Tyson.

Portland Downtown business and community development nonprofit funded through an additional tax assessment paid by property owners within the downtown district overlay zone.

The car-stowing program, known as “Park and Work,” is open to downtown workers making less than half the local median income as defined by federal Housing and Urban Development guidelines.

This year, in Portland, the median, four-person family household income is $112,700. To qualify for the parking program, a similar family needs to make less than $55,850 per year. A single worker would need to make less than $39,100 per year to qualify.

A car pulls out of a parking garage.
A pulls out of the city-owned parking garage on Elm Street in Portland on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. A little-used city program subsidizes parking costs for low-income downtown workers. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Portland’s current hourly minimum wage is $13. A single person, making that wage, 40 hours a week, for a year, makes $27,040, well below the threshold for the program.

Once qualified, workers or their employers can purchase stamps used in lieu of cash at city-owned parking garages on Spring Street and Elm Street.

Each stamp is good for three hours of parking and they come in books of 48. Complete stamp books cost $100 and are good for 144 hours of total parking time.

The hourly parking rate at both the Spring Street and Elm Street garages recently increased from $2.50 per hour to $3 per hour.

Without the stamps, 144 hours of parking comes in at $432. That’s a $332 savings from the regular price — or can be thought of as 110.6 hours of free parking.

Workers may only use two stamps per day, however. If their shifts are longer than six hours, they’ll still need to fork over some of their wages to park a car.

The stamp books can be purchased with exact change or by check only at the Portland Downtown offices at 549 Congress St. To get qualified, employers must call Portland Downtown and vouch for their employees’ wage and business location.

That’s it.

“We haven’t had anyone abuse it as of yet,” Tyson said. “Just call me or the staff here.”

Tyson said he’s not sure how long the program has been running, but it predates his tenure at Portland Downtown, which began five years ago. He estimates only 20 to 30 people per month are currently utilizing the program.

“It’s not a lot, and we’d like to see more,” Tyson said.

He admits that the program is a tad cumbersome but believes it’s well worth the effort.

Tyson also suspects more people will start to use the program as the number of available on-street parking spots shrink with the return of tourism in a post-pandemic Portland.

He said he’s aware some people are hesitant to use a parking garage that’s not close to their workplace, creating a considerable walk.

“That’s more of a walking problem than a parking problem,” he said, “but it’s a good way to get our steps in.”

 

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.