Durham now has the most expensive downtown parking of any city in North Carolina.

On July 1, following a unanimous June vote from the city council, street parking rates between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays were raised from $1.50 to $2.50 per hour, and parking garage rates saw an 80 percent increase, from $1.25 to $2.25 per hour.

Garage parking, which was previously limited to $16.50 a day, is now capped at $24.75.

The increase was implemented to recover investments that the city has made toward improving downtown parking in recent years, according to Durham transportation director Sean Egan. Those improvements include upgrading surveillance systems and pay stations, hiring unarmed security guards during evening and weekend hours, and offering digital payment methods.

“The city council has made it clear that the cost of parking should be paid by users rather than by all city taxpayers, and rate increases to enable cost recovery—that had been planned for 2020 and 2021—were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Egan says.

For downtown businesses facing high inflation rates, supply chain shortages, and ongoing issues with recruitment and retention of employees, all while trying to recover from COVID-era losses, the spike in parking fees—enacted during the slowest season of the year—is a sucker punch to the gonads. 

Many owners fear that the increased rates will not only deter customers but sabotage their ability to hire and hold onto employees; workers who make the $7.25 federal minimum wage now risk losing up to 34 percent of their hourly income to parking.

In efforts to offset these losses, the city is offering a voucher program that provides a half-price discount on monthly parking to downtown workers who earn at or below 60 percent of the area median family income—around $37,000 a year, in Durham.

But because many downtown businesses pay their workers a living wage or higher, quite a few employees won’t qualify for the voucher. Some critics have also equated the voucher to a subsidy for unethical employers.

“You’re telling me that my employee who has three kids needs to make under $40,000 [to qualify for the voucher],” says Mary Claire Sommerville, general manager at Mateo Bar de Tapas. “That’s ridiculous.”

Furthermore, monthly parking permits, which increased by $40 on July 1, are currently on a waitlist for all downtown surface lots. (Monthly permits for most garages are available.)

Sommerville is most upset at something that the city’s ordinance to change parking fees does not specify, but looks to be the case nevertheless: the gates in downtown parking decks that previously lifted at 7 p.m. on weeknights, allowing workers to exit for free after clocking out from their evening shifts, have remained lowered on several nights during the past week.

Business owners weren’t made aware of this change, Sommerville says, so she was unable to warn her staff of the new rate.

“I paid everybody back for the money they spent on parking, because no one knew it was coming,” Sommerville says. “It was just a mess.”

Sommerville says the city hasn’t replied to her emails and phone calls requesting information about the garage gates. As of July 7, Egan has not responded to an emailed follow-up inquiry about the gates from the INDY.

Gabrielle Harris, who works as a bartender at downtown Durham restaurant COPA, says she was caught off guard on Tuesday when the gate at her usual parking deck was still closed at 10 p.m. When she pulled up to the gate, she had cash on hand, but was met with the garage’s card-only meter. Her options: reverse back into the deck, park, and pay at a meter that accepts cash, or dip into the money on a card that she reserves for paying rent. She opted for the latter, then immediately drove to the bank to deposit her cash tips into the card.

“I literally was sobbing leaving the garage,” Harris says. 

Harris lives in Carrboro, and already has to expend large amounts of money on record-high gas prices to fund her commute.

“Now I have to pay to work downtown,” she says. “Fantastic.”

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

Follow Staff Writer Lena Geller on Twitter or send an email to lgeller@indyweek.com.