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Making parking pay

The city council has approved a pilot program to price parking spaces by demand in a 4.5-mile, arrow-shaped swatch of downtown. The new pricing scheme is expected to be operational by mid-2012.

New sensors will monitor nearly 6,000 curbside spaces and about 7,500 stalls in public lots to calculate a per-hour rate based on how many cars are parked and for how long.

Heavily used spaces - presumably in premium locations - will cost more per hour.

Those spaces might see frequent price changes; most parking spaces in the pilot program won't see change nearly as often. But overall, the cost of parking will increase whenever demand goes up. Meter rates downtown are $1 to $4 an hour now. The new pricing scheme could cause rates to rise - or fall - a maximum of 50 percent.

There are some doubts that the pricing system - called ExpressPark - will perform as well as its pitchmen have claimed. In San Francisco, a system installed by the same company was replaced soon after it was completed. But if ExpressPark works, drivers with GPS and a mobile app could be directed to open parking spaces, reducing the time that frustrated drivers orbit the block. And drivers already parked would be able to add time to a meter by text or email.

Drivers without these resources - the poor, the elderly, most tourists - would be at a disadvantage in the hunt for a parking place.

"Dynamic" pricing is one of several approaches to getting some drivers out of their cars - or out of downtown. Lower income motorists can't afford many $6 hours. Occasional visitors might chose to do business elsewhere, where parking is cheaper or more convenient. The least affected would be corporate employees, who typically benefit from subsidized parking. That, too, is a target of those who advocate fewer cars on downtown streets.

The benefits are less congestion, more public transit use, more efficient use of parking spaces, and (potentially) streets clear enough for bicyclists and pedestrians.

For the city, dynamic pricing is mostly a matter of money.

The politics of taxation in California make it almost impossible to raise general revenues for the common good. The alternatives are fees and fines, including tougher parking enforcement, new code violation fines, new sign fees, new ambulance fees, and new fire department cost recovery fees.

According to a recent story in the Daily News:

Ideas the city has looked at range from putting new fees on emergency services to posting more "no-parking" signs for street sweeping to privatizing facilities like the Los Angeles Zoo and the Convention Center, to a new tax on sports and entertainment events. "We think the list we have put before the council is fairly extensive," said City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana. "About the only thing left are bake sales, car washes and selling candy bars.

Santana's sarcasm reflects the prevailing mood among city officials: the system of government financing has broken down under the burden of tax politics, budgeting by voter initiative, and economic drift. Selling corporate naming rights for city libraries and turning bus benches into eye-level electronic billboards - among the financing schemes recently proposed - are the result.

All these options represent a market-based revolution in providing and paying for public services, even parking spaces. Letting the market - based on sticker shock - ration a scarce commodity has obvious economic value for the city, and it may even have an aspect of social engineering under the market's presumably neutral arbitration.

But then, the common good isn't a commodity, and deciding the values of a city is best done by citizens, not consumers.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user Desmond Talkington. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

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