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A novel suggestion to solve downtown Santa Rosa's chronic parking problems by fluctuating meter and garage rates got an enthusiastic nod Tuesday from City Council members.

In the first meeting on the subject since hearing the proposal to raise and lower rates with demand, council members pledged support and directed a subcommittee composed partly of business owners to pursue the next steps.

"Performance-based parking just makes total sense to me," said Councilman Gary Wysocky, echoing others on the seven-member panel impressed by the idea.

Councilwoman Jane Bender said additional money generated by the scheme would be earmarked for downtown improvements that could make it more attractive to shoppers.

"I'm going to be pushing as hard as I can," Bender said.

Two weeks ago, the council received a presentation from parking guru Donald Shoup, a UCLA urban planning professor, who believes Santa Rosa doesn't charge enough for street parking during some parts of the day and think it charges too much during others.

He said fluctuating rates would help ensure more spaces are available and encourage people to use parking garages at peak hours.

Also, Shoup suggested a system in which people who wanted to park longer could. He recommended a tiered parking ticket policy that let first-time violators off with a freebie.

Shoup pointed to Southern California cities that employ the model, spending all or a portion of the revenue on sidewalk repairs, cleaning, plants and benches.

Many said his idea could help solve Santa Rosa's perennial parking woes and could be incorporated in a broader goal of encouraging the use of mass transit.

Downtown business owner Bernie Schwartz said his customers complain often about confusion over the present curbside parking system and strict enforcement that leaves them with tickets.

"I'm grateful we are going to tackle this," said Schwartz, who owns California Luggage on Fourth Street. "I'd like to see it done sooner rather than later."

Laura Kozup, area mall manager for the Santa Rosa Plaza, said she was optimistic about anything that would lead to more parking for her customers. Too often, the mall's parking lots are filled by downtown employees and others who are not doing business there, she said.

"I believe these ideas are very progressive," Kozup said. "I really hope it doesn't become another study and nothing gets done."

David Harris, a member of the Sonoma County Transportation Land Use Coalition, said any new parking system should be tied to a dedicated bus route that would reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gases.

He said revenue from increased parking rates could pay for a more frequent route linking the downtown to points like Railroad Square, Santa Rosa Junior College and the county government center.

Wysocky agreed and suggested more nighttime bus service for junior college students.

"This is not just about parking," Harris said. "It's about how we get to where we are going."

Details will be hammered out in the coming weeks and could come back to the council before the end of the year.

City Manager Jeff Kolin said a meeting of downtown stakeholders could recommend policy, including a move to vest more authority in a parking administrator who would be accountable for results.

The downtown subcommittee meets next at City Hall on Sept. 1. On a related topic, the council will consider increased parking fines Sept. 15.

Kolin cautioned the council against any plan that would result in a reduction of income from parking garages, meters and citations, which he said is spoken for in the budget.

"It's important that we recognize the situation," Kolin said. "If we lose sight of it and have a reduction in revenue, we can't backfill it. In the current economy, that is a very risky proposition."