McConnellsburg, a borough in south-central Pennsylvania with a population noted as not much over 1,000, has managed to find a way to monetize parking in its downtown—that is, the three blocks that comprise its main street (Lincoln Way).
Do you see them there in the distance, next to the sidewalk? The village hosts a tidy row of signature green-and-gold meters.
To be fair, it’s a well-kept little downtown overall, with a number of meticulously preserved mixed-use buildings that still offer the nineteenth century paradigm of commercial on the first floor with residences above.
The oldest structures along McConnellsburg’s main street are sufficient to serve as contributing features to the McConnellsburg Historic District, a district that comprises approximately one-third of the borough’s .35 miles of incorporated area.
Among these structures is the original home of Daniel McConnell (who platted and founded the borough in 1786), and Fulton House, an old stone tavern built just a few years later, seen in the photo below.
Yet McConnellsburg doesn’t have a website of its own; only Fulton County offers that. Presumably not big enough that its borough council can justify allocating the money to fund one.
Still, at least one person among the village leadership managed to make a case for parking meters in the town…or enough of the right people managed to get the ear of an influential figure in municipal government. I’m not sure I’m aware of a village this small that has ever deployed parking meters.
And if there is one, I can only imagine it’s because the village has a clear attraction—something that encourages enough touristic out-of-towners to visit that they’d be willing to pay while visiting that winsome (although hardly lively) little main street. But, aside from history buffs intrigued by the borough’s 18th century structures—a phenomenon common to other parts of Pennsylvania but comparatively rare here—the biggest attraction is the region’s unusually high concentration of barn quilts, with enough in McConnellsburg to justify its place on the Barn Quilt Trail. But this feature isn’t something that McConnellsburg shouts to visitors upon entering; I only learned about this idiosyncrasy through follow-up research.
So, why does McConnellsburg have parking meters? The borough obviously puts some effort into giving them a certain identity: notice how they share the atypical green coloring of the village’s streetlights in the photo below (with the wood-frame Daniel McConnell House visible on the opposite side of the street):
My suspicion is the Borough can justify metering its main street for one primary purpose: for people visiting McConnellsburg for county-level functions. It is among the least populous county seats in Pennsylvania. Only three other counties in the commonwealth have fewer people than Fulton County. Here’s the Prothonotary’s Office, just two blocks off of Lincoln Way but still within the Historic District.
This building is probably the single largest attraction in McConnellsburg, bringing the the county’s remaining 12,000 people scattered across 438 square miles to this relatively central location for county-level functions, which, in an area this rural, is quite a bit: registrations, deeds, hearings, birth/death certificates, planning, veterans’ services. Though Pennsylvania is one of the handful of states where 100% of is incorporated—aside from two other tiny boroughs, the rest of Fulton County is sparsely populated townships—the county seat in such a rural area would assume a higher share of responsibilities than it might in, say, urban Allegheny County, which is pockmarked with numerous boroughs, well populated townships, and one very large city (Pittsburgh). And although the Prothonotary’s Office appears to have a sizable adjacent parking lot, it’s likely that these spaces first go to County workers, with a few reserved for visitors. The rest have to park on the street nearby, with meters to accommodate them.
But I still cannot help but question the efficacy of these meters, for one major reason.
Check out those prices. They’re even more generous than the meters I noticed in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Cincinnati many years ago, and they’re almost as generous as the ones in nearby Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which give us fifteen free minutes with the turn of the knob. At these sort of prices, how does the Borough make much money off of them? About the most they could get out of a single meter is one dollar in a day, and that probably virtually never happens. The meters also force people to carry change with them, which a diminishing number of us do.
The meters have no apparatus to accept paper or credit/debit payment, and at these rock-bottom rates, it’s hard to imagine how they could justify it. No credit payment company would accept a contract with a place that charges so little. And how can they even justify a meter attendant to cite people for violations? Perhaps they’re extra strict and charge unusually high prices when someone lets the meter expire; otherwise, it’s hard to imagine McConnellsburg could collect enough money to pay a single worker. Most telling of all: the side residential streets off of Lincoln Way or its perpendicular 2nd Street can easily accommodate off-street parking.
I saw no evidence that McConnellsburg requires permits to park on these side streets, so it’s an easy method to avoid a citation. Outside of a major event—an annual festival, maybe, or a major trial—it’s hard to imagine a situation where any one of the borough’s many meters gets any real use at all.
I hate for this article to end on such a critical tone, so once again I must at least marvel at the fact that such a small municipality has decided to charge for parking. But if one were to assess the efficiency and efficacy of various initiatives through a state-level audit, I can’t imagine this one rating highly. It’s a reasonably straightforward example of the free rider problem, where the means of offsetting the cost of maintaining public roads gets offset by other public roads, and people choose to park at the ones with no cost. One could argue that such a thing would happen as well in an urban setting where meters have steeper rates and real enforcement; but even in city like Philadelphia, the well enforced metered parking downtown can hardly compensate for the thousands of miles of minor residential roads that lack a payment system. Additionally, the embedded value levied here comes from parking alongside the road, not from the cartway upon which the vehicles travel. Therefore, the price conferred through metering better accounts for social costs—traffic induced, potential safety consequences, preventing free-rider abuse of spaces in front of commercial enterprises that have no off-street alternative. And while I’m not sure the attempt at safeguarding against these negative externalities really achieves much in McConnellsburg, it’s hard not to fault the borough’s leadership for at least making an effort. And that level of effort is visible throughout the McConnellsburg main street. Not every small town in America that can make such a case to put nearly half the land area within a protected historic district. And I have to tip my hat to the green and gold. Maybe someday McConnellsburg really will find that pot at the end of the rainbow.