Politics · Society

The High Cost of Metered Parking

“Parking is not free”. Except when it is. And it WAS in my town until two years ago when the city installed meters throughout the downtown area, changing the landscape forever like a giant coin operated meteor hurdling into town.

After two years of living with the changes, the city in which I live recently created a Parking Commission whose job it is to study and report to the city council on issues related to parking, particularly downtown. I interviewed for this commission but was not named as one of its members. That said, I will offer my own thoughts on the parking situation and will continue to do so because of its dramatic effect on my own personal and professional life, as well as that of those around me.

The city gave the usual arguments for the meters when they were being considered. Turning over cars in the spaces. Socially engineering the town to reduce the number of cars driving in it. Forcing people into the garages. Of course ultimately it was all about the money, and they were right in their predictions. The city has made millions in revenue on the meters since their installation.

Cities talk about the money they make from the meters to show they are successful and people are continuing to park regardless of their presence. What is always hidden in that are the costs, both direct and hidden. As for direct costs, the city buries the costs of both the meters themselves (including maintenance) and the enforcement of the meters. Even costs such as electricity to run the meters, snow removal to uncover them, even cleaning costs from bird damage is covered up and buried. But not all costs are so obvious. Since the meters have been put in, there has been turnover of over half the shops on the courthouse square downtown. Most of the owners of the shuttered businesses place blame largely on the loss of customers following the meter installation. Even those that remain open, including large chains, report significant loss in revenues following the meters’ installation. I would encourage the city to be more transparent in its finances on this issue and to conduct a more thorough study among the downtown businesses. It is difficult to analyze the issue properly when the data is so hard to come by.

One of the original issues in parking was a symptom of having the county courthouse downtown. Because free two-hour parking was available, many county employees (of which there are over 200), would park on the street and move their cars every two hours to avoid a ticket. Locals even created a name for this: “the two hour shuffle”. It was like roaches scurrying away after someone shined a flashlight on the county courthouse.

One major issue that has contributed to the growth of the downtown parking issue is the explosive growth of the student-oriented apartments downtown. These apartments are not built with enough spaces to provide a parking space for each unit, and many who have cars ultimately house them on the street. The city has given the entire student housing market (read: developers) a boost by approving a never-ending stream of these buildings. I can look out my downtown office window and see three under construction as I type this. Because of these developments, parking downtown is likely to worsen before it improves.

Another issue with downtown parking was that the city built several garages which were costing more than they were bringing in and were largely underutilized. The city blamed the ability to park for free on the street for no one paying to use the garages for long term parking. The city’s solution, after putting in the parking meters, was to allow limited free parking in the garages. But not uniformly. One garage never had free parking. One was free for three hours before 6PM and always free after and on weekends, and another was free for three hours until 6PM. Makes perfect sense in government logic. Of course it confused the residents and visitors alike.

The city itself admitted that the garages were underutilized when the discussion on whether to approve the meters was happening. The garages sat more than half empty nearly all day because they were not free, while people would circle the blocks to look for free street spaces. Therefore, there never really was a parking shortage problem, it was always a parking utilization problem. Even today, several of the city’s lots and garages sit partially unused. The city could easily have cracked down on the free parking without eliminating it. Had the city created a “parking zone” that included the area where the meters are currently located, it could have limited parking to, for example, three hours of total parking in the zone, which would have stopped the “two hour shuffle” roaches and pushed them to the garages.

The city provides parking to its workers at city hall for the price of a $2 parking pass. This pass enables them unlimited parking at the city hall regardless of whether they are working. The county recently spent $9 million of taxpayer funds to build a parking garage solely for the county employees who now could not scurry out of their offices multiple times a day to park for free on the street because the city installed the meters, but instead were forced to either pay to park in the aforementioned underused garages, or continue to park for free three blocks away at the convention center. I am still waiting on the free “downtown office worker” garage for the rest of the taxpayers who work downtown and are now both paying for their own parking and subsidizing that of the government employees who can do so for free (or nearly free).

I expect the meters will remain in place for the foreseeable future. In doing so, I hope that the city can be more transparent in how the money is being spent. The first reason given for their installation was the ongoing expense of the garages. I would expect that the profits from the meters be poured into maintenance and upkeep of roads, and working to pay the garages down to the point of ultimately providing them as a free resource for local citizens to park long term, or at least as a place that employees downtown can apply for fee waivers to park there for free.

I have never paid a parking meter here. I do not pay parking meters, as I already pay for the street and the spaces painted on them via my property taxes. If the only parking in an area is metered, I go elsewhere. Or I go home and shop on Amazon and the local economy misses out altogether. I am not alone in this thinking. Parking meters tell the wrong story. It says this town cares less about the residents, visitors, and storekeepers than it does its own bank account. It sends a message loud and clear to casual visitors that “You are welcome here only if you pay, and only for a short time.” Let’s rethink the whole idea of meters and parking and welcome back those literally driven away by their presence.

Politics

A Night of Local Democratic Realization

Last night I attended a forum where four panelists, all Democratic candidates for state or national office, provided insight into what went wrong and how to fix it. The short answer: lots of things. The long answer: lots more things.

The original subject of this forum was to focus on “rural” voters and how to reach them, what their interests were, their thought processes. Of course, one of the first comments was “What’s rural?” My home of Bloomington has about 80,000 people including students at the university. To someone from New York our town is like we should have farmers riding tractors down the dirt roads. To locals though, we are the big city metropolis while nearly every other southern Indiana town between here, Terre Haute, Columbus, and Evansville is “rural”.

As I listened to the conversation in which the audience was allowed to contribute and ask questions, it became apparent that the very thought of “Bloomington vs the world” might be part of the problem. There is often a sense of superiority among the Democrats in Bloomington in comparison to the surrounding community. Leaders here, from elected party officials to party leadership, trend on the arrogant know-it-all side, and see Bloomington as the Indiana version of Berkeley (to paraphrase: I know Berkeley, I’ve been to Berkeley…Berkeley is a cool place….Bloomington, you are no Berkeley). Bloomington has a reputation of being a blue island in the red sea that is the rest of Indiana, but nowhere to the level seen on the coasts. Without the university, Bloomington would be every other town in southern Indiana. Local Democratic party elites tend to come across that they view the surrounding area like the movie Deliverance, while the surrounding area views the Bloomington officeholders like the second coming of Marx. The initial conversation had a feeling of “how do we get the redneck hicks to not hate our guts?”, but once the realization came that “we really can’t”, the conversation turned.

Why can’t the Democrats convert the rural masses? Several reasons. One, the church (collectively most Christian denominations) have basically become conservative recruitment centers. It’s like a right-wing business. You speak the words that get you the money. Those TV preachers have to pay the mortgages on those multi-million dollar mansions after all. Two, the rise of Fox News and other shameless news outlets (I’m looking at you Breitbart). It is not difficult to single out a Fox News viewer. They have tells like bad poker players. Say the word “Benghazi” and you can see their faces twist into a knot you didn’t think was anatomically possible. Third is the rise of the internet. It is not difficult to find the most depraved, psychotic stuff imaginable online. It passes for conservative news. And that’s the real news to our current president, while everything else is “fake news”. The fake news label being spewed is yet another tell of a Fox News viewer.

So, Democrats will never convert the rural, church-going, Fox News-viewing, Brietbart-reading masses that exist in most of rural Indiana and the rest of the Midwest. So then what? Excite the base. 100% turnout among registered Democratic voters would mean landslides in nearly every election. But how do you excite a base that is too lazy to look up from their smartphones to see their house is on fire?

Hillary was not popular among young people and progressives. Look at the crowds that turned out for Bernie Sanders. Progressives. Young people. This is the core base of Democratic voters now that Democrats must attract to the polls. Fact. Who came out to vote for Obama in 2008 that did not turn out in 2016 for Hillary? Young people. Progressives. Those who saw something different in their candidate. Something exciting. Sanders voters still believe their candidate would have won not only the primary but the general election had the Democratic Party not nominated someone they deemed “the anointed one”. He is viewed by that very base as the change candidate in a change, anti-establishment election. When Hillary wrapped up the nomination, there was little to no effort to reach out to the Sanders primary voters of the party. Those voters were lost, and despite the fact that enough voters turned out nationwide to give Hillary the overall vote win, it killed the Democratic Party from top to bottom nationwide.

If Democrats hope to win, whether it is locally or nationally, they can’t run Republican-light candidates. We elected a Catholic (the horror!) president in 1960 because he was young, popular, and offered a new direction for our country. We would have elected his brother in 1968 for the same reason. In 1976, we elected a peanut farmer as president on the anger against the establishment. In 1992 we elected a charismatic, late night TV sax-playing southern governor. In 2008 we elected a charismatic black man with only a few years political experience. Since  FDR, the Democrats who have lost the presidential election all had one thing in common: they were uninspiring party insiders. They did not excite the base. Trump won in 2016 in spite of his party leadership precisely because he excited his base of voters, who then turned out for him in droves while the Democratic party base in those states stayed home, resulting in the lowest turnout in most of those states in years.

Democrats must learn the lesson that appealing to moderates and independents is less important than appealing to your own base. That base is now Socialist Democrat progressives and young people. Republicans have learned that lesson. If Democrats hope to win in 2018 and 2020, they need to find candidates at all levels of government that bring something new and exciting to the table, or we may be facing eight years of President Trump. God help us all.