Chicago’s Parking Meter Debacle: The Check Is Not in the Mail

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Frank Polich / Bloomberg News / Getty Images
Frank Polich / Bloomberg News / Getty Images

A Chicago parking meter pay box in the city's central business district.

Sounding a bit like an angry motorist who’s just gotten what he considers an unfair parking ticket, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel announced last week that he wasn’t going to pay a $14 million bill sent to the city by the company that runs the city’s parking meters.

Emanuel was defiant:

Just because you send a bill, I’m not gonna ask taxpayers to pay it. …[Y]ou owe information to justify it. And I don’t even think the information when you’re providing it is accurate. So I sent ’em a letter back. And let me say this: In the envelope wasn’t a check …  .

The bill in question, from the unimaginatively named Chicago Parking Meters LLC, is for what the company says it’s owed for revenues lost when the city closed streets for repairs, street fairs, and the like. The company recently sent the city a similar sized bill to compensate for the lost revenues from Chicago drivers using “disabled” placards. That’s currently in arbitration.

There’s no question that Chicago will have to shell out some money; these sorts of obligations are spelled out in the 521-page contract the city signed. The Emanuel administration insists that the company is overcharging the city; the company says its bills are accurate.

So how did Chicago get itself into this situation? In 2008, Chicago’s then-mayor Richard M. Daley pushed through a $1 billion deal to lease Chicago’s parking meters to a private company for 75 years. A group of investors, led by Morgan Stanley, took over Chicago parking, ripping out old meters and replacing them with high-tech pay boxes. As Chicagoans adjusted themselves to the new technology, they also had to adjust themselves to new, much higher parking rates. Street parking in Chicago’s Loop now costs $5.75 an hour. Next year it will be $6.50.

As you might imagine, Daley’s little parting gift to Chicago has not been terribly popular amongst the city’s residents.

The Expired Meter, a blog devoted to chronicling what it sees as the failings of the parking deal, greeted the news with these three words: “Told ya so.” Looking at the recent bills, and doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations, the blog pointed out that

by the end of the 75 year lease term, Chicago looks to pay CPM more than the original $1.16 billion lump sum payment it received in 2008 …

In other words, over the length of the contract, CPM will get their entire initial investment of $1.16 billion back through givebacks  while reaping many billions of dollars [more] in profits from Chicago drivers … .

This oversimplifies matters a bit – extrapolating the future costs based on a couple of big bills that have yet to be paid and ignoring what will be the not-inconsiderable effects of inflation over 75 years. But it’s clear that these sorts of payments – even if they do get adjusted downward before they are paid – will continue to irritate Chicagoans for decades to come.

The popular Chicagoist blog likens the parking deal “to a herpes outbreak: it reminds you it’s still there at the most inopportune times.” Meanwhile, over on the Ward Room blog of Chicago’s NBC affiliate, Edward McClelland offers this solution to the problem:

It would cost every man, woman and child in Chicago $423 to buy back the parking meters from the Wall Street bankers and the Arab emirs who are getting rich off our streets. I say we start taking up a collection.

Somehow I doubt that’s going to happen.

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