$40,000 contract to study parking will be funded by the Tulare County Association of Governments
By Reggie Ellis
VISALIA – There may be plenty of parking in the midst of a public health pandemic, but when COVID comes to a close so will the supply of ample parking in downtown.
Rather than wait around, the county’s largest city and its largest employer are working together to find a solution to the lack of parking in downtown Visalia.
At its March 2 meeting, the Visalia City Council awarded a Kaweah Delta Parking Study to TKJM Transportation Consultants, the same company the city is using for its study of extending one-way traffic on Main and Center streets from Santa Fe Street to Ben Maddox Way. The study will cost $39,900 and will be funded by the Tulare County Association of Governments, the county’s transportation agency.
As one of the largest employers in the region, but more specifically in downtown, Kaweah Delta faces unique challenges in providing adequate parking for employees, as well as patients, family members, vendors, and others. In a joint letter to Tulare County Association of Governments (TCAG), city manager Randy Groom and Kaweah Delta CEO Gary Herbst said the two entities have been discussing ways to improve circulation and parking for some time but admitted that neither agency has expertise in these areas, nor do we have sufficient knowledge of approaches that have been successfully implemented elsewhere in the state, nation, or world.
We believe that it is time to climb outside the box of traditional traffic and parking planning and engineering and consider alternatives that may exist that could improve the situation, not only for the District but for the general public directly affected by these circumstances,” the letter stated. “With rapidly emerging technology … we believe the time is right to consider any and all potential solutions that could improve parking and traffic circulation in the downtown area of Visalia, particularly in terms of the large number of employees that call downtown Visalia their work home.”
A major component of the study will be surveying Kaweah Delta employees to determine if they are willing to utilize alternative forms of transportation such as autonomous vehicles, ride sharing, car sharing and micro transit. If not, the study would likely focus on “Park and Ride” scenarios that would utilize remote parking and a shuttle.
“Such a study must critically look at the human element of this problem and determine not only what alternatives might be feasible but what the affected humans are willing and able to utilize and might enthusiastically embrace,” the letter concluded.
Marc Mertz, Kaweah Delta’s vice president of strategic planning and business development, said Kaweah Delta already knows it needs an additional 500 parking spaces but wants to look at the broader picture of how much parking downtown Visalia needs overall.
“Parking wasn’t nearly as dire just five years ago,” Mertz said in an interview earlier this year.
Long term, Mertz said a dedicated Kaweah Delta parking structure may be the only answer but a costly one. Preliminary estimates are that adding 500 spaces would cost the district around $30,000 per space or $15 million in total. He said the hospital is looking for existing surface lots it could purchase and then convert to a multi-level parking structure. More parking structures could also open the door for better pedestrian access.
“We are very concerned with pedestrian safety around the campus and we have been in conversations with the city about enhancing crosswalks,” Mertz said.
Mertz also said Kaweah Delta isn’t waiting around for the study to be completed to find short term solutions. In August, the hospital added 100 new spaces on the former lot of Doc’s Drive-In. The decision to add the lot was part of its effort to minimize the impact of its emergency department expansion.
Kaweah Delta Medical Center’s ED expansion began to affect parking for its patients last summer when the hospital’s main lot was limited to emergency and labor and delivery patients and their vehicles only.
That’s when Kaweah Delta launched its free valet service which has become a popular alternative for hospital visitors. Last August, Kaweah Delta extended hours of the service from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekends at the ED entrance off Mineral King Avenue.
“The valet parking has done really well and created more openings and spaces,” Mertz said.
Kaweah Delta also added more all-day parking spaces to the public parking structures at Locust Street as well as Acequia Avenue. The 2nd floor of the Acequia structure is now all-day parking, along with the 4th and 5th floors. Similarly, the 2nd floor and 5th floor of the Locust parking structure is now all-day parking. The hospital reminds residents to please use crosswalks for their own safety. For parking updates, those visiting the hospital can call 559-624-2008.
The changes to parking are part of a two-year, $32.8 million project that will nearly double the size of the emergency department (ED) from 41 to 74 beds and will more than double the size of the waiting area to accommodate over 100 people compared to about 65 currently.