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Posted by on Oct 16, 2009 in Economy, Society | 2 comments

Parking Privatization — Beware The Slippery Slope

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If you drive a car in virtually any city or town in this country you probably think the parking ticket situation couldn’t be worse. Silly you. It’s actually much worse in other parts of the world, and nowhere worse than in the U.K.

There are so many god-awful parking tales coming out of the U.K. these days they appear in its media almost as often as local weather reports. Perhaps the worst abuses don’t even involve on-street ticketing by local government minions. They occur off-street in privately managed parking facilities.

So great and widespread have outrages become in this realm that the AA, the U.K’s equivalent of our own Automobile Association of America (the AAA) recently came out with an eye-popping report called “Private Parking Enforcement Out of Control.” Based on a survey of nearly 14,000 of its members, it stated that “the scale of private enforcement and level of punishment meted out by an army of private enforcers is frightening and often borders on criminality.”

Is this same level of private parking predation occurring here in the U.S.? Not yet, but…

Though there are tens of thousands of privately managed parking facilities appended to institutions such as schools and hospitals in this country, along with an even greater number of company owned and managed lots and garages, things have not yet degenerated to this extent. Look closely, though, and you’ll find a growing number of private security guards dressed in quasi-military gear issuing tickets. You’ll also find a slew of entrepreneurial tow truck operators plying their trade, with pricey incentives allowed by local authorities. In Chicago, for example, parking privateers can charge $115 to have a boot they put on private property removed. In Miami the fee can run to $85. In Minneapolis $103.

What’s even more troubling than growing private parking abuse on private property is the way that behavior associated with privatization is beginning to take hold on public property, on the streets of our cities and towns. Some American communities are empowering private citizens to give out parking tickets on their streets, tickets that are then collected by agencies of the empowering city.

Local governments in Texas have led the way with this disturbing trend. Houston claims to be the first city in the nation to let security guards, parking lot attendants, and other assorted private parties give out municipal approved parking tickets. Today, more than 400 of these volunteers walk the streets and mall parking lots of the Big H.

Parking privatization on public streets isn’t just a big city problem either. Greenville, a town of just 27,000 in northeast Texas, has its own force of private citizen ticket givers who belong to what city fathers have cutely named the COPS (Citizens On Patrol). Its members can dispense tickets for four kinds of parking violations with fines that range from $20 to $255 — a power about as sensible and prudent as allowing private citizens to come to a home or place of business and at their own discretion hit the owner with a $255 freelance property tax assessment.

When it comes to introducing the profit motive into parking ticketing in a particularly blatant manner, there’s Dallas. Under a contract with that city, Dallas’ private company employed ticket givers win an extra $6 million payment if they collectively give out more than 198,000 tickets a year, according to media reports.

Chicago is of course the prime recent example of parking privatization gone amok. Late last year it leased its 36,000 parking meters to a company affiliated with Morgan Stanley for 75 years in return for a reported up-front payment of $1.7 billion. Since then motorists have been hard hit with huge increases in their parking costs. In the central business district, local media report, the cost to park for an hour doubled from $1 an hour to $2, and will quadruple to $4 an hour by 2013.

Ours is a car-based culture. Cars have to park somewhere when they leave their owner’s garage. Pricey curb metering and aggressive ticketing by public parking authorities are thus inevitable, something drivers will likely suffer with to an ever greater extent because of the fiscal woes of local communities.

That’s bad enough. But giving over all or part of this huge cash cow for quick upfront money, or enforcement rights to a pack of parking vigilantes, is just plain crazy. Publicly controlled parking collections and enforcement are at least somewhat restrained by political pressures of a local citizenry. Privatizing public parking is just throwing motorists to the metering and ticketing wolves.

You really, really don’t want private company bottom lines and the demands of Wall Street hucksters to control how much you have to cough up when you take your car from home and venture into the wider world.

Original cartoons by Kay Wood

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