EDITORIAL: City's parking plan needs work

September 18, 2010

Mayor Greg Ballard strikes us as someone who puts pragmatism over politics. That’s why we’re hopeful he’ll reconsider details of the controversial plan to turn over the city’s metered parking to a private vendor.

The mayor’s political opponents will surely use any waffling on the parking plan against him, but the criticism could be worse—and more warranted—if the plan now on the table wins City-County Council approval.

Last month, the city introduced its plan to turn over administration of city parking assets to Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Services Inc. The 50-year contract would give ACS control of 3,650 metered parking spaces in exchange for a $35 million upfront payment to the city and a share of parking revenue over the life of the contract.

ACS would quickly replace city meters with electronic meters capable of accepting credit cards. Rates that haven’t changed in 35 years would double in some cases, and in certain parts of downtown and Broad Ripple meters would have to be plugged evenings and Saturdays, not just weekdays.

A group of retailers has raised concerns about the higher rates and longer hours, but that’s not our concern. Higher rates are justified after 35 years, and many retailers welcome the turnover in parking spaces that would occur during the additional hours metered parking would be in effect.

That turnover should translate into more customers having the opportunity to patronize businesses downtown and in Broad Ripple. We like that. And we see merit in the city’s plans for the money it makes on the deal: infrastructure improvements in the areas where the money is collected. That income—perhaps as much as $400 million over the life of the contract—could go a long way.

As attractive as that money sounds to a cash-starved city, a detailed reading of the contract makes us wonder if the city shouldn’t expect more. An IBJ analysis last month estimated the deal could generate as much as $1.2 billion in revenue for the vendor over the five-decade term of the contract.

But leaving money on the table isn’t as bad as ceding control of public space for half a century. That’s what happens if the contract is signed. According to its terms, the city can terminate it only if ACS defaults on its obligations.

As Aaron Renn, author of the urban-planning blog Urbanophile, told IBJ, the contract “assumes that we know today what the best use of that real estate will be decades from now.”

Maybe there’s a better use now. Momentum is building for large-scale improvements to the city’s laughable public transportation system. What if those plans require altering the parking lanes ACS might soon control? It’s a possibility that can’t be discounted. Upgrading public transit is a big enough job as it is. Why create a new obstacle?

There’s a lot to like about the parking proposal, but handing over control of the public right-of-way without any recourse should be a deal-breaker.

The city must demand more flexibility. If ACS won’t grant it, the mayor and his team should walk away.•


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