Area aldermen discuss deal for parking meters
by JASON PORTERFIELD
Northwest Side aldermen offered tentative support for a proposed deal that would change the city’s lease agreement with Chicago Parking Meters and urged caution in their deliberation of the deal.
The agreement would make parking at meters in most parts of the city free on Sundays but would extend metered parking hours by at least one hour throughout the city. The agreement also is expected to save the city millions of dollars through the 75 years remaining on the lease by changing the way that data for calculating compensation for adding or closing parking spots, changing periods of stay, hours of operation or parking rates is interpreted.
Chicago Parking Meters has asked the city to pay a total of $49 million over a 2-year period ending March 31. The city had contested the amount, stating that the amount owed is $8.9 million. At an average of $20 million annually, the city would have to play more than $1 billion over the life of the contract.
The adjustments to the contract must be approved by the City Council.
The City Council voted in December of 2008 to lease the city’s parking meters to the private corporation for $1.15 billion through Feb. 29, 2084, after former mayor Richard Daley gave aldermen just three days to review the terms of the agreement.
The deal has proven unpopular as parking rates have increased sharply, hours were increased and the initial transition from stand-alone meters to pay boxes was marred by reports of malfunctioning machines. The company also has submitted numerous bills for metered spots that have been taken out of service for reasons including street resurfacing projects and street closings caused by the 2012 North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit hosted by the city.
Under the new agreement, Chicago Parking Meters would accept the city’s interpretation of the charges incurred. The city would also have the power to process the data necessary for determining the amounts due to or from the city under the contract. Chicago Parking Meters has been performing the calculations and submitting them to the city, but under the new agreement the city would perform the.
The deal would provide for free parking in Chicago neighborhoods on Sundays and would allow people to use cell phones to pay for parking.
The proposed settlement agreement and amendment to the parking meter contract were introduced to the City Council at its May 8 meeting, and aldermen were given 30 days to review them.
The city had received invoices totaling $49 million for the 2-year period ending March 31. As part of the settlement, the city would pay $8.9 million for those years, putting the payment amount in line with the city’s accounting of the amounts due to the company.
Metered parking spaces in Chicago neighborhoods would be free on Sundays in areas south of Roosevelt Road, west of Halsted Street and north of North Avenue.
The city would extend metered parking for blocks where metered parking ends at 9 p.m. by 1 hour to 10 p.m. in most parts of the city. Meter times would be extended from 9 p.m. to midnight in the area bordered by the Chicago River on the south, Division Street on the north and the Chicago River on the west. Hours of operation will not change for residential streets where metered parking currently runs until 6 p.m.
The option to pay by cell phone would eliminate the need for drivers to visit the pay box, print a parking receipt and place the receipt in their windshield. Instead, they will be able to enter a pay box number posted on street signs into a cell phone application.
Drivers who use their cell phones would be charged 35 cents for purchases of less than 2 hours at a time. Users would be able to create an account with an initial balance of $20. The payment system would be available by the summer of 2014.
An arbitrator’s findings bind the city to pay the company $12 million to close the dispute. The city also will pay an additional $42.9 million in claims related to the dispute from the past 2 years.
Alderman Timothy Cullerton (38th) said that he is in favor of the deal. “In this case the mayor has done a good job of standing up to them and getting the best deal possible,” Cullerton said. “We’ll save millions in the short term and $1 billion in the long term.
Cullerton said that the deal was presented as a full package and that some aldermen wanted to separate the changes to meter hours from the compensation issue so that they could be voted on separately but that the Department of Law said that it is not possible to do so.
“They said that we couldn’t do it without both parts and that if we tried company would walk away from the deal and that if we walk away from it we’ll end up in court,” Cullerton said. “The mayor himself said that it isn’t an ideal agreement, but it’s the best we could do. I tend to agree with that.”
Cullerton said that the higher parking meter rates under the contract are burdensome but that they also can help businesses.
“Meters do provide more parking for customers, because employees who used to park there all day are not willing to pay those rates,” Cullerton said. “No one likes to pay that much for parking, but it is more convenient if you can just pull into a spot, pay and do what you need to do and leave.”
Alderman Margaret Laurino (39th) said that she is “leaning toward” supporting the deal. “It’s not perfect, but it’s better than it was,” Laurino said. “Locally, it will be good for the neighborhood chambers because of the free Sunday parking.”
Laurino said that she supports the part of the deal that addresses the legal disputes between the city and company but that the extension of hours balanced against free Sunday parking is very complicated and requires more study.” “Myself and my colleagues have time to study it and come up with questions,” she said. “We’ll take it one day at a time until it goes to committee.”
Alderman Mary O’Connor (41st) said that she is still considering the deal but that she favors the reduction in charges against the city.
“I welcome any proposal that takes money away from the company and gives it back to the taxpayers, even if most consumers and everyday residents will barely feel it,” O’Connor said. “I commend the mayor for his efforts, but it brings up unpleasant memories of when that deal was first done.”
O’Connor said that while there are not many meters her ward, the free Sunday parking would be a “great relief” to other parts of the city and that residents would likely will welcome the option of paying by cell phone.
Alderman Rey Colon (35th) said that he thinks the City Council should be able to consider each part of the deal separately.
“I’m glad the mayor was not only able to get the charges resolved and reduced, but also change the way these charges would be calculated in the future,” Colon said. “I do have an issue with the way the deal is packaged together. We can’t vote on paying our obligations without also voting on the extended hours.”
Colon said that he has to examine whether the trade-off of extended hours for free Sunday parking would be a good deal for the city and that 24 aldermen have already said that they support the deal, which needs 26 votes to pass.
“Already there are 24 out in favor of this,” Colon said. “It’s giving the rest of us who want to examine the details the signal that this deal is close to being done.”
Colon said that there are “good things” in the deal, but that he wants time to examine it. “I want to vote for us to meet our financial obligations, but I don’t want to have to accept the extended hours or the free Sundays along with it,” he said.
Colon also questioned the inclusion of the pay-by-phone service in the deal. “I think that’s something that would happen eventually anyway,” Colon said. “Other cities are already doing it. We shouldn’t have to do a meter deal every time we get a technology upgrade.”
Alderman John Arena (45th) said that the decision by other aldermen to announce their support of the deal shortly after they received the packet was hasty that he and his staff are going through the document and coming up with questions.
“One thing we don’t know is how they calculated the usage in the evening hours, particularly in River North,” Arena said. “If there’s one thing we do know, it’s that there are a lot of points where we don’t have all of the information that we need before we make a decision. I’m going to ask a lot of questions, and that’s something that the mayor is encouraging us to do during this process.”
Arena said that the trade-off of extended hours for free Sunday parking appears to be roughly equal but that he wants an independent party to analyze the deal before it comes up for a vote.
“We have some very bright individuals working for the city, but they are working for an agenda,” Arena said. “Just having a committee isn’t enough. You need a third party to come in and take a good look at everything that’s in here.”
“Parking management philosophy is that free parking is not good parking,” Arena said. “People park there and leave their cars all day and that metered spot won’t be available for people to pull over and visit stores.”
Arena said that the deal has forced him to shelve an ordinance that would have lifted rush-hour traffic bans on Milwaukee Avenue between Lawrence Avenue and Addison Street. He said that the change would add time to the parking meter system but that the company said that the change would decrease the value of the meters. Arena said that he does not want the parking change to occur before he knows how those spots might be affected by the meter deal.
Alderman Nicholas Sposato (36th) said that there are parts of the deal that he favors and that he is inclined to support it because it would save the city money.
“It’s like the budget,” Sposato said. “There are things in the budget that I like and things that I don’t, but you can’t pick and choose. You have to vote for it all.”
Sposato said that he does not feel much enthusiasm for the free Sunday parking and that he worries that people will park in metered spaces and stay there until Monday.
“You need parking turnover for businesses,” Sposato said. “If they cost a couple of bucks, people put their money in, shop and leave.”