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Parking Up: The Wrong Fee?

Parking tax hike provides cover for cash grab from unlikely source

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At Pittsburgh City Council's Jan. 13, meeting, parking lot operators paraded to the microphone, warning of disaster should the city hike its parking tax from 31 percent to 50 percent. People won't come Downtown, they warned. Businesses will leave. Ultimately, the tax hike will result in reduced parking revenues.

 

ALCO Parking President Merrill Stabile said the tax hike would immediately force a 14.5-percent rate increase. Here's the math: For a space for which the garage would charge $10 pre-tax, the city's take will rise from $3.10 to $5.00. That pushes the total price from $13.10 to $15.00 -- a 14.5 percent jump. That doesn't include anything ALCO might have to tack on to cover recent increases in insurance and security costs, Stabile said.

 

Council raised the tax anyway.

 

It was easy for a cynic to wonder whether private garage operators might up their rates dramatically, blame the city -- and then keep the rates high if long-sought state aid allows the city to lower the tax again. On Jan. 15, one parking operator seemed to confirm those dark suspicions, but it wasn't ALCO or any other private operator. It was the publicly owned Pittsburgh Parking Authority.

 

The authority, controlled by Mayor Tom Murphy, announced it would boost rates at garages by 25 percent to 30 percent, and at metered lots by 100 percent. The increases far exceed the amount of the tax hike, admits Parking Authority Director of Administration Anthony Boule. That's in part because the authority, like ALCO, has seen insurance and security costs rise since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. It's also a result of the authority's $78 million debt load, and its desire to borrow more to build a garage on the site of the Greyhound Station. There's even a percentage point or two in there for good measure. "You've got to allow a little cushion in there in case the worst happens," Boule says.

 

It's painful to speculate at this point about what "the worst" might be. Boule would also rather not speculate on what a best-case scenario -- say, a prompt rollback of the tax hike -- might mean for the authority's rates. "I'd love to be able to forecast and predict that," he says, "but I can't." So there's no guarantee that rates will go back down if the tax does.

 

This isn't the end of the world, Boule notes. People will still park in Pittsburgh, and they might soon be better able to find spaces in the authority's popular garage under the Downtown Lazarus, slated to close in spring. "Let's not think of this as a death knell for Pittsburgh," Boule counsels. "We will weather the storm."

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