Opinion: Emanuel’s Parking Meter ‘Fix’ Could Make Things Worse
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel may have done the impossible.
He may have actually made Chicago’s reviled parking meter lease deal even worse.
At a press conference Monday morning Emanuel announced a settlement in the ongoing legal battle between the city and Chicago Parking Meters, LLC (CPM). Initially, it sounded like the city had indeed arm twisted some mild improvements to the universally despised deal out of CPM.
But as details of the proposed settlement emerged over the course of the day, Emanuel’s allegedly new and improved parking meter lease deal looks like it could make things even more challenging and expensive for Chicago drivers.
The mayor wants to allow Sunday drivers to park for free. On its surface, the concept evokes the idyllic image of church-going Chicagoans driving to worship early Sunday morning. But at his press conference, the mayor conveniently left out the important fact that meters still must be fed Sunday downtown in the Central Business District.
Since traffic and parking volume is lowest on Sundays, it’s certainly not much of a concession on CPM’s part.
Inexplicably however, Emanuel agreed to extend meter enforcement by one hour at most metered spots so that drivers must feed meters Monday through Saturday until 10 PM.
Adding even more salt to the wound, the mayor targeted the River North entertainment district and wants to allow CPM to charge for meters until midnight seven days a week–a three hour increase.
While City Hall estimates CPM will see an $8 million loss from allowing free Sunday parking, it says the company will make up $7 million of that amount up with the extended meter hours. Overall, Chicago drivers won’t see any benefit from these changes.
But many people are skeptical the city’s math will hold up. 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack thinks its possible CPM could actually end up generating even more revenue from these changes.
“It’s essentially going to be a wash or we’re going to be paying more,” said Waguespack.“Restaurant patrons, bar patrons, they’ll all be paying more. That would probably make them (CPM) a lot more (money).”
Initially, Emanuel’s refusal to pay CPM for street closure bills last year seemed like a brilliant bargaining tactic–a tactic that would allow the mayor to fulfill a campaign promise to force CPM to renegotiate the meter deal. It could have been a rare chance to make needed changes to the steaming pile of parking pain former Mayor Richard M. Daley left behind for Emanuel to clean up.
The most glaring example is the meter rates themselves. Emanuel was unable, or unwilling to find a way to lower Chicago’s parking meter rates–far and away the nation’s highest.
But Chicago’s current three tiered rate system could have been exploited to lower rates overall. That’s because the inflexibility of the current rate structure keeps meter rates artificially high and most likely limits CPM’s revenue.
Under the current rates, someone parking in the low income Austin neighborhood pays the same as the driver in Wrigleyville who finally snags a parking spot after circling the block for 20 minutes.
Why didn’t the mayor sell CPM on a demand based pricing structure instead of the current system? By allowing a sliding rate schedule based on parking demand, rates in low income, low demand areas would drop while rates in high congestion areas would be allowed to rise.
This would allow average rates for Chicago drivers to decline overall while keeping CPM’s revenues constant or even higher than they are now. Not only would this make metered parking more affordable to more drivers, it would also serve as a defacto congestion tax reducing parking congestion as well as minimizing vehicles circling neighborhood blocks searching for an open spot.
San Francisco has been experimenting with this model recently and initial reports seem to indicate diminished parking congestion and increased meter revenue.
Perhaps the only positive aspect of what Emanuel is proposing is the concessions from CPM on the tens of millions in street closure bills the company submitted. The mayor claims the company agreed to slash the $49 million in these bills to just under $9 million. Going forward, he says his administration was able to convince CPM to change the way street closure claims are calculated saving the city $20 million a year or over a billion dollars over the next 71 years left in the term of the lease.
But the Emanuel Administration is not providing details or any data to support their claim. So at this point, no one really knows for sure if any of these savings will actually materialize in the long run.
From the driver’s perspective, Emanuel’s plan makes little sense.
And based on the mayor’s reputation for being a tough as nails negotiator, the supposed concessions he’s gotten from CPM are impressive in how pathetic they are.
Is it possible Mayor Emanuel got outmaneuvered by Chicago Parking Meters?
It certainly seems so.