Sunday, May 18, 2014

Feed That Meter!

If you park regularly on metered streets or in public parking lots, you probably have noticed things have been changing in recent years.  Here are some trends:

Higher Rates

Cities seem to be raising rates generally.  Metered street parking now costs $6.50 an hour in Chicago, $5.00 in Manhattan, us much as $6.00 in San Francisco and $4.00 in Seattle.  Parking in St. Louis is a relative bargain at 75 cents an hour.

This does not mean you need to carry a roll of quarters in your pocket.  Many cities thoughtfully have converted their parking meters and lots to accept credit card payments.

In addition, some cities have moved to seven-day meter collection and longer hours of collection for each day.

Higher Fines

Cities have also been raising revenues by increasing the fines assessed for parking violations.

An expired meter citation in Chicago now carries a $65 fine.

New York's fine is $65 (perhaps $75, depending on new state charges: see below).  The same amount is charged for feeding meters to prolong stays and for parking longer than the posted time limit at nonfunctioning meters.

San Francisco's meter fines range from $55 in neighborhoods to $65, or perhaps $72, downtown; cities don't make it easy to research these things.

State Participation

Two big state governments also have taken an entrepreneurial approach, cutting themselves in on the parking ticket action.

In 2010, California passed a state surcharge of $12.50 for each parking violation.

A New York State Criminal Justice Surcharge that started at $12.50 per parking ticket was increased to $15 and then, last fall, to $25.

The Chicago Experiment

In 2008, Chicago outsourced its meter maintenance, collections and enforcement to a consortium of investors led by Morgan Stanley Infrastructure Partners.  Chicago got $1.15 billion, and the new group got the right to operate the city's parking system for 75 years.

The Morgan Stanley people made parking more efficient.  They raised parking rates, repaired broken meters and beefed up enforcement, which meant issuing many more tickets.  Chicagoans were not delighted with these improvements.

The next year, the city's Office of the Inspector General re-examined Chicago's outsourcing contract and concluded that the city should have held out for at least $1 billion more.

In New York City, where then-mayor Michael Bloomberg was considering a similar parking contract, the Chicago experience seemed to dampen local support for the plan.

Opposition in Los Angeles

Last year, an aggrieved Los Angeles man went public with the story of how a $63 parking fine turned into a debt of $175.  First the city doubled the fine when it was not paid within two weeks, then it assessed a delinquent fee of $28 and finally a collection fee of $21.  (The city also charges an extra $2 to those who use the internet to pay fines with their credit cards.)

An organization calling itself the Los Angeles Parking Freedom Initiative now is circulating an online petition demanding reform of the city's parking regulations.  One recent signer complained of having paid $738 in parking fines within 12 months of moving to the city.

Detroit Opportunity

If bankrupt Detroit can adopt some basic efficiencies, it may have a chance to turn a profit, as other cities do, on parking enforcement.  Currently half the city's parking meters, like many of its street lights, are not functioning at any given time.

 The city's expired-meter fine is $30, but its cost to collect parking fines is $32 for each violation.  Records are said to be poorly kept, with some unpaid fines dating back as long as 10 years, past the statute of limitations.  No one seems to know how many, if any, overdue fines can be collected.

Still, 70 percent of parking violations are issued to cars from outside the city, and municipalities generally find money collected from out-of-towners is more popular than levies on local residents.

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