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Traffic at the corner of Main Street and Mt. Diablo Boulevard in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 13, 2013. Some street metered parking rates could jump to $2 an hour here under a proposed plan by city officials. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

WALNUT CREEK -- To help drive shoppers and diners into underused city parking garages, parking meter rates may double as the city attempts to solve its downtown parking problem.

Rates could jump from $1 to $2 an hour downtown. And meter enforcement times may change from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. to 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. All of this, city leaders say, is an attempt to fill the garages and open up more street parking for those who want to pay for the premium spots. The last rate increase was in 2007, from 50 cents to $1 an hour.

"The studies have shown (even after previous rate hikes) parking on-street has continued to increase and demand has still gone up," said Matt Huffaker, assistant to the city manager. "We want to use pricing as a parking management tool that allows us to ensure that the most parking is available to the most people."

The city's Transportation Commission will discuss the proposed changes and overall structure of a parking fund at its 6 p.m. Thursday meeting at City Hall, 1666 N. Main St. But a full review of a draft parking ordinance and adoption of proposed changes isn't expected by the City Council until next month.

A hike to $2 an hour would give Walnut Creek the highest on-street parking rate in the county, and put it in line with cities such as Oakland and parts of San Francisco.

But making money is not the goal, Huffaker said. In fact, along with the rate hike, the first hour of parking at city garages would be free, and the Broadway garage would offer free parking all day on Sundays.

For years, Walnut Creek leaders and patrons have struggled with the city's downtown parking situation. Studies have been done, task forces formed and rates raised, all in an effort to refute the idea that there is not enough parking downtown.

City parking studies have measured the occupancy rate of street and garage parking; the latest study update, done in February, found that on-street meter parking occupancy at peak times -- Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights -- was more than 100 percent, Huffaker said. Not only was every space taken, but people were double parking, he said. The city shoots for an 85 percent occupancy rate for on-street parking.

Another proposal is to expand the boundaries of the downtown parking meter zone to include the city's total parking inventory. The zone would go up to Parkside Drive on the north (the zone now ends at Civic Drive) and south to just past Las Lomas High School.

In the outlying parking zone, 85 percent occupancy would again be the benchmark. While rates there would not go to $2 an hour as is suggested for central downtown, the outlying hourly rate would change from 50 cents to $1 an hour.

But the city must be careful not to drive those users away, said Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce President Jay Hoyer. Downtown business owners, in the past, haven't supported longer enforcement hours or higher rates, he said. But this proposal is an entire plan to improve parking and includes public education about why this is necessary, Hoyer said.

Still, he thinks the city should be cautious.

"Our concern is this push strategy ... pushing people out of places assumes they will stay here," he said. "But when all of our neighbors don't have parking meters, you may just be pushing them elsewhere."

Some may have already been pushed away. Bob Fish of Danville said he used to come to Walnut Creek all the time. He believes the changes are indeed intended to boost revenue.

"Mostly (now) we visit Pleasant Hill or Stoneridge Mall for our shopping," Fish said. "Parking is free, there's always room, and we can spend time considering what to eat or what to buy instead of worrying about the dreaded meter maid lurking around the corner."

The City Council has already supported a parking management plan in which fees rates and collection hours are adjusted to achieve that 85 percent maximum occupancy for on-street parking, but an update to that parking ordinance is necessary, Huffaker said. A draft version of the ordinance, which will include fee ranges, will first go to the transportation commission in October and then the City Council a few weeks later. If approved, fees would likely rise by early 2014.

For more information go to www.walnut-creek.org and click on "quick links" then "public meetings" and finally "transportation commission."

Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.