Fighting for a spot

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(Matt Dellinger, Transportation Nation) - On Tuesday we posted about the Indianapolis manifestation of Park(ing) Day, wherein a prime loading zone on Meridian Street was turned to lawn as a demonstration of the importance of urban green space.

The residents of Indianapolis are a little sensitive about their parking spaces these days.  The city’s mayor, Greg Ballard, has put forth a plan to privatize the city’s parking. A Dallas-based company, Affiliated Computer Services Inc., would lease the meters for fifty years and share the proceeds with the city. They would pay an upfront fee of $35 million for local road improvements and cover the cost of modernization.

As Transportation Nation’s Andrea Bernstein reported in July, the parking meter was invented 75 years ago to solve a scarcity of curb space in Oklahoma City, but the coin-eating meter has been replaced of late by a credit-card-friendly multi-space machine and window stickers.  The Indianapolis plan would also allow the private company to raise the cost of parking (which has been static in Indy for thirty-five years) to a full dollar per hour and beyond.

Critics of the deal (there are many) say it is no good. Some point out that Pittsburgh has been offered more than $300 million for a fifty-year deal and that Harrisburg passed up an offer worth $215 million. Aaron Renn, who blogs as the Urbanophile, assembled a multi-point memo arguing that the timing is also bad, and the contract would be a cash cow for the leasers.

The specter of Chicago looms: Mayor Daley, after privatizing the Chicago Skyway toll road, signed a seventy-five-year lease of the city’s street parking for $1.15 billion, but residents wailed at the price increases, and have since learned that the Morgan Stanley-led leasers stood to profit nearly $10 billion.

Parking is becoming big business, whether curbside or off-street. The Australian bank MacQuarie, which invested in the Skyway, led a consortium that bought New York’s private Icon Parking garages for $634 million in 2005. Investors like steady cash flow and many are evidently betting that, with cities growing and car use steady, our demand for parking could outgrow the current prices.

No one likes to pay more, but maybe it’s healthy to pony up, whether we’re charged by a company or a government agency. Critics of Sprawl (such as Matthew Yglesias) have argued that free or under-priced parking amounts to a subsidy of driving and encourages car ownership over transit use. After all, the supply management provided by pricing is what inspired the business leaders in Oklahoma City all those years ago.

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.