CAMDEN — Could improving the use of parking spaces downtown lead to less traffic congestion during peak seasons?

This is one of many questions in a study of parking in Camden.

While the Sept. 30 meeting to obtain public comment on downtown parking was poorly attended, there will be another meeting in the future, according to John Burke, who is conducting the study.

Written comments can be sent to tocselectboard@camdenmaine.gov.

Challenges identified include: lack of parking availability and poor parking turnover in the 2-hour zone; commercial truck loading and unloading; and too much traffic drawn into the downtown hub and waterfront area with people searching for parking.

Information on the parking study is posted on camdenmaine.gov.

“We’re right at the start of things,” Burke said Sept. 30. “We want to make sure we’re seeing everything. There is no issue too small.”

He encourages people not to jump to solutions at this point.

“We’re going to identify issues, and then we’ll look at alternative solutions and we’ll have a deeper conversation on some of those issues,” he said.

Town Manager Audra Caler said Burke has a lot of experience working in towns similar to Camden. He has conducted numerous studies for coastal towns, including Bar Harbor, Plymouth, Mass, and Mystic, Conn. He is an engineer, parking and transportation consultant, and has served as parking and transportation director for the cities, including Lewiston and Portsmouth, N.H.

Burke said no solutions have yet been identified to increase availability of on-street public parking in Camden, but there are  things that have been done in other coastal towns that can be considered as the study progresses. These include ways to use private parking in the immediate downtown and using metered parking to increase turnover of spaces.

The study is part of Camden’s 2012 downtown master plan, which recommends implementation of an integrated parking management strategy.

So far, Burke has gathered information by interviewing a group of stakeholders, including downtown business owners, parking lot owners, residents, employees, a former Select Board and Planning Board member and a Camden-Rockport Pathways member.

An Advisory Committee has also been formed and met with Burke in July and September. One of the topics committee members and Burke talked about at a Sept. 29 meeting was whether 15-minute parking spaces might be distributed on Main and Elm at locations people visit for shorter periods of time, and whether 15 minute and two-hour limits are the right amounts of time.

The Advisory Committee has sorted through and ranked guiding principles.

Number 2 on the list of guiding principles is currently “commercial core areas should be reserved for short-term customer and visitor parking to the extent possible.” Number three mentions the use of signage and online information to help people locate parking in the downtown area. Numbers 4 and 5 mention paid parking “should be fairly priced” and that there should be multiple options for paying for it, including cash, credit card, mobile payment or permit. The committee has not yet winnowed down its preliminary list of 15 principles.

Burke has also collected data on parking within  a five minute walk of downtown. He counted 1,459 designated parking spaces in this area. Of those spaces, 350 are on-street and 1,109 off-street. Out of the total spaces, 686, or 47%, are public, and 773 are private. Just looking at the 1,109 off-street spaces, 336, or 30%, are public.

A parking study focusing on downtown Camden shows public on-street parking is full at certain times of day. This photo was taken 12 noon, Friday, Oct. 1. Photo by Susan Mustapich

He has also surveyed parking space occupancy during the busy summer season on Thursday, July 29, and Saturday, July 31. The survey shows peak occupancy occurs between noon and 2 p.m..

On July 29, nearly 93% of all on-street parking spaces were occupied at 1 p.m. On Saturday, July 31, on-street parking was 91% full by 11 a.m. and that climbed to 95% full by 1 p.m.

In contrast, up to 60% of off-street parking was occupied on July 29 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. On July 31, during that same time, off-street parking occupancy ranged from 44% to 56%.

Burke’s occupancy survey shows that use of public off-street parking is much higher than use of private off-street parking. At 1 p.m. on July 29 and 31, the use of public off-street parking was 90% and 98% respectively. Anything 90% and above is considered at capacity. Private off-street parking occupancy at 1 p.m. was 47% on July 29 and 38% on July 31.

One way to look at this is all of the public off-street parking supply is at capacity just during the lunch hour in the summer, he said. But this is an issue to look at further. When private off-street parking is significantly underused, there are ways to increase its use, he said.

From the stakeholder interviews, the concern came up of people circling through the downtown several times to find a parking space. Both Caler and Burke mentioned this can increase the amount of traffic downtown, contributing to traffic congestion.