Posts Tagged ‘Local Government’

Last week I talked about how local governments have been putting a squeeze on the travel parking industry, citing a few examples across the country in addition to the numerous instances I have covered in this blog. This week, we’re going to examine the motivations behind this industry squeeze and how these efforts have progressed beyond individual instances and turned into an endemic that is having a chilling effect on the entire industry.

So what’s the motivation behind this abuse of government power? Well money of course, though more specifically budget deficits. Parking is usually one of the only sources of revenue with a low relative overhead available to most municipalities, and these funds are frequently used to pay for special projects and budget shortfalls, as well as too infrequent infrastructure improvements to parking facilities. More often, infrastructure improvements are funded with bonds, which can come back to bite the city in the ass and all too often end up being used for unnecessary projects rather than vital improvements. With so many local governments struggling with a severe shortage of funds, they’ve been leaning even more heavily on their parking revenue, and more than a few have been willing to wield their authority to squash out any perceived competition. Because hey, why rise to the challenge of your competition when you can just change the rules so no one else can play the game?

A common way that parking authorities put the squeeze on off-site operators is through the access fees they charge to allow their shuttles onto the airport. You see, for each shuttle run to the port (air or sea) a fee is charged to the offsite parking facility. These fees typically were only a few dollars if that, but whenever budget shortfalls occur or there’s a new project that needs to be funded, raising these fees is usually one of the first things that happen. Since many offsite parking businesses operate with a low profit margin, having to rely on the quantity of their business to remain profitable. As these fees have risen, parking  businesses have had to pass that access cost onto the consumer, hence the one-time access fee of a couple dollars that’s added onto your bill at most offsite parking facilities. Not only will port authorities raise these fees to beef up their budget, they’ll also wield it as a weapon against offsite businesses, such as in Port Canaveral where they wanted to raise the fee so high that it would have instantly forced the closing of all the offsite parking businesses. In other cases, such as what’s unfolding in Nashville, they’ll selectively raise the fees on offsite parking facilities (more than tripling it in Nashville) while reducing the fees for hotel shuttles to access the port, even when those hotels are actively running an offsite parking business out of their lots as many of them do these days. It is literally robbing Peter to pay Paul, and this happens because the hotels typically hold far more sway over municipal authorities as such large economic drivers in their local economies, to say nothing of the typically incestuous relationship between hotel management and the commissions that run most air and sea ports. It’s one of the oldest forms of political corruption out there and it’s alive and well in many port and parking authorities.

Another way that municipalities have been having a chilling effect on the parking industry is through the way they’ve put a squeeze on investment, slowing or preventing the growth of parking businesses. As most of us are aware, since the recession, investment capital has been much harder to come by unless you’re already a mutli-million dollar corporation. The parking business is generally seen as a safe investment, as there is very little capital or debt needed after the initial development phase and it provides stable long term returns. While there’s nothing to be done about the general investment climate but to weather it, the real damage is being done by the uncertainty that is being created by local governments. One of the three key factors in investing in parking is how stable and sustainable the business in question is, and for travel parking businesses that means how likely it is that the business will retain ownership of their land, the ability to acquire more land down the line for expansion and growth, and how likely continued access to the air or cruise port in question will be in the short and long term. Traditionally this has been a strength for parking businesses, aw air and cruise ports don’t move often and the land around them tends to be undesirable for most other business and residential concerns, but that has changed since the recession, particularly in the past year. Whether it’s Indianapolis’s airport fighting to keep parking businesses from buying land for years on end, Port Canaveral pulling a 180 and refusing to issue permits to businesses that had already bought the land and marketed their grand opening in good faith as happened to Premier Parking, or trying to seize offsite parking businesses through eminent domain as happened to Cramer Airport Parking in Pennsylvania, these actions, particularly their ramped up frequency and aggression, has made for an uncertain and unstable investment environment. While the parking management giants continue to barrel ahead and reap ever greater profits, the industry as a whole has been suffering from this uncertainty and investment crunch, something that is borne out by 2012’s being the markedly slowest year of growth since the 2008 crash.

So what’s the remedy to this endemic corruption throughout our municipal system? Well daylight seems to be one of the best solutions. Most of these things are able to happen because no one is paying attention. I’m someone who works in and writes about the parking industry, and even I find it dull at times. And of course anyone who’s been to a city council or municipal committee meeting knows that those are typically duller than traffic court. When the Port Authority in Canaveral was declaring all-out war on the parking industry, it was the public outcry in support of the only two non-cronies on the Port Commission that stopped all their shenanigans and led to the ouster of the Port Authority’s CEO and greedy-bastard-in-chief Stan Payne. At the end of the day, it’s up to the public to take a stern look at their public servants, hold them accountable and tell them to stop being lazy and corrupt and to deal with their competition by rising to the challenge instead of trying to poison the well, because, frankly, no one else is going to do it. Surprisingly, many of these incidents happen in areas that have very active Tea Party and anti-government movements, yet none of these groups have pounced on these instances of government abuse; hopefully that will change and government watchdog groups will realize that tackling these abuses are not only good for their local economy and government, but great publicity for the need for keeping an eye on the government and the good that watchdog groups can have.

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Taxes have been a big dispute in this country, particularly during the past few years of recession. While we’d all like to pay less taxes, the combination of federal and state level austerity combined with some of the lowest tax rates in our history (because apparently a lot of politicians somehow think that two negative hits to their budget will somehow equal a surplus) has left many local governments struggling to find new ways to generate revenue and get themselves back in the black, and for many cities this has meant ramping up parking fees and parking enforcement, using them as a hidden tax. The problem with this is that many municipalities had already been heavily relying on parking to shore up their budget, and the financial burden it creates is saddled almost entirely by low-income citizens.

The pressure to generate more and more revenue through parking puts an undue strain on both parking enforcers, who are still seeing budget cuts, furlough days and pay freezes on top of dealing with irate parkers who blame them for city ordnances, and average citizens who find that they’re having to pay more and more just to run errands, go shopping or just to go to work thanks to less and les free parking and skyrocketing meter rates and parking fines. And on top of all of that, all too often the money garnered through these more draconian parking policies isn’t being used to improve the parking situation for parkers or for long overdue infrastructure improvements that more and more parking garage and facilities are desperately in need of.

Examples of this are everywhere. In New York and New Jersey, the transportation authority raised rates on parkers and subway travelers yet again, and yet none of the their revenue for the next few years is budgeted for much needed upgrades to those services which have been overburdened and in need of upgrades for close to a decade. And all too often the funds being generated are being used to pay down massive debts incurred by parking authorities that were being mismanaged with next to no oversight for years if not decades, so that increased parking fees are going toward construction debts for projects that may not have even been finished or were unnecessary in the first place (cronyism is rampant in parking authorities, as I’ve pointed out before). And paying down these debts often keeps the authorities in question from embarking on projects that are actually needed and would either lessen the burden on themselves and parkers, increase revenues, or both.

At the end of the day, it’s folks like you and me that end up paying the price. Just the other day in Sacramento, a man left for work in the morning, leaving his car parked at the curb in front of his house like he usually did. When he returned home, he found that the city had put in “No Parking” signs along the street (without informing any of the street residents beforehand), including one right in front of his car, and had then ticketed him for being parked in a no parking zone; and when he tried to appeal the nearly $60 ticket, the county dismissed his appeal! Lucky for Casey Elson (our victim in this story), his local news station did some digging and was able to get the city to void the ticket. During a ride along with a parking enforcer earlier in the week, an L.A. reporter witnessed them ticket a car that had accidentally parked behind a street sweeping sign, a sign which was bent sideways and completely obscured by a low hanging branch. The enforcer reported the broken sign, but still slapped the car with a $73 ticket since there was a sign further down the block (because who doesn’t check the street signs a block away to make sure they didn’t accidentally park in a no parking zone?!).

I could go on and on, as the examples keep coming every week. And it doesn’t seem like there’s an end in sight, as local municipalities find themselves getting squeezed tighter and tighter. So what can we do, besides riding a bike or continuing to wait for Start Trek transporter technology? Well, at this point the best thing is to let your local government know; call your city council members, contact your local transportation authority, and when you hear or see a parking injustice, write a letter to the editor or email your local news. The reason that these parking authorities are so mismanaged and keep saddling lower income residents with more and more of these hidden taxes is because they are operating in the dark and they know that no one is paying attention to what they’re doing. That’s why a little sunlight shined on your local parking authority can lead to a little relief for yourself and other parkers and force your local government to actually tackle their budget issues instead of continually subsidizing government laziness with parking fees.