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City pulls free spots

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Last week, the city of Missoula began slipping notices beneath the windshield wipers of cars parked on the north curb of Railroad Street. As of September 1, they said, the stretch of brick street, heretofore one of the last free places to park during weekdays downtown, will be a "lease only zone" requiring a monthly payment of $30.

Anne Guest, director of the Missoula Parking Commission, says the move is intended to create more parking turnover by discouraging drivers who park on the meter-free side of the street for days at a time or longer.

"Nobody likes to see free parking going away," Guest says, "but when they understand that availability has not been there—and this is going to create more availability—then they understand that it's a reasonable effort."

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Parking rules tend to stir up downtown residents, business owners and employees like few other issues. The city has long struggled to develop a system that satisfies them. Guest says the change on Railroad Street, downtown's northern limit, is part of a larger effort to give employees inexpensive parking options on the periphery of downtown.

Elsewhere, the city is installing expensive 10-hour meters. A lease-only zone on Railroad Street makes more sense, Guest says, partly because of the potential for vandalism to meters there. She estimates the city will sell about 20 lease tags for Railroad Street. It won't paint spots onto the historic brick street.

"It sucks," said one young man who had just pulled his car away from the Railroad Street curb on a recent rainy morning, and declined to give his name. The change came as news to him. He said he lives in the Park Place apartments, across the street. "Where are we supposed to park?" he asked.

"In this economy, maybe people will say, 'I can't afford the $30,' Guest says, "and they're going to have to ride the bus or find another alternative."

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