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17 December 2008

Chicago's Parking Meters

The Tribune ran a story a few weeks back about a plan to privatize Chicago's parking meters. The city will receive a check for 1.2 billion in return for a 75 year lease on the meters. While I do support increasing the rate for parking meters this isn't how it should be done and here's why.

Our current meters have to go. They're archaic and they don't support variable rates. Every block with meters should have one of those pay stations that accepts credit cards and prints out a parking sticker. I've seen them along Columbus Ave. and in Seattle (the Seattle ones are better). You just hit a button, 15 minutes per push, and then pay with a credit card or coins. Then you take your ticket and stick it on the inside of your window. Here's my twist. Parking spots are a commodity just like anything else. Their relative use and therefore value fluctuates throughout the day. The meters should track how many spots are open and raise prices as spots become scarce; shooting for roughly a 10% vacancy rate. This should help businesses as it would allow customers to find a spot more quickly, or really a spot at all. It will also have the added benefit of reducing traffic by encouraging people not to drive around in circles looking for a spot. Higher prices will also create an incentive for people to not bring their cars downtown further reducing overall traffic and therefore accidents. It would also boost the usage rates of public transit.

Why am I against privatizing it? No doubt it will become more efficient. Private companies need to be viable whereas bureaucracy do not. I'm not actually against privatizing. I just know what Chicago will do with that money. Chicago politicians are going to spend it instantly, and most likely on bad programs or debts on older bad programs. Don't be so naive as to think otherwise. So the money will mostly be wasted and now the future parking revenue doesn't even go to the city. This is basically our city taking a lotto-like lump sum instead of the full payment over a longer term. What rush are we in? This is essentially borrowing money, and you should only borrow money when the immediate influx of cash is invested in something that will, in the long run, be worth more than the principal and interest. So what are we investing in?

I am aware that our city is facing huge budget problems, but who/what company/what government isn't right now? Selling off government property such as parking meters, parking garages, and the Skyway just delays the problem. This isn't partisan crazy talk. We need to balance the budget or we run the risk of stunting our future economic growth. Essentially, we can't sell or tax our way out of this. We need to stop spending so much, period.

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