Drivers would have to feed most Chicago parking meters for more hours every day except Sunday under a plan Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced as part of a deal to settle a long-running dispute with the private firm that holds the controversial 75-year meter lease with the city.
The mayor on Monday portrayed the changes as making the best of a bad situation he inherited when he took office in 2011, saying his administration negotiated a reduction in the $103.9 million tab that Chicago Parking Meters LLC wanted taxpayers to fork over as compensation for lost revenue over the last three years alone. He said a new agreement will save the city money over the remaining 71 years of the contract, but declined to provide specific evidence of savings.
Emanuel also focused on a proposal to end meter charges on Sunday across much of Chicago, though not in the central part of the city.
"I'm trying to make a little lemonade out of a big lemon. We can't make this bad deal go away, or make it into a good one," Emanuel said. "But I think we did make it a little less bad for the next seven decades while adding some breaks and conveniences for Chicagoans along the way."
The mayor refused to provide the proposed settlement of the disputed charges with Chicago Parking Meters LLC or the draft amendment to the parking lease, pending introduction to the City Council next week. That made it impossible to fully determine what the bottom line would be for drivers, how the city calculated its savings and why the firm would agree to a deal that Emanuel said could save taxpayers up to $1 billion over the life of the lease.
Officials with Chicago Parking Meters issued a statement saying they hope the council will approve the proposal but declined to answer questions about details.
Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd, one of the few aldermen who voted against the parking meter lease pushed by former Mayor Richard Daley in 2008, said he was skeptical Chicago Parking Meters would leave so much money on the table when they had a contract.
"This company is in it to make money," Waguespack said. He called on the Emanuel administration to join a lawsuit seeking to overturn the contract.
"(Emanuel) should be standing side by side with the citizens, with corporation counsel, even if it takes a little bit of time, a little bit of effort and saying 'We'll stand up and we'll try to find a way to fight this through court' at a minimum, and see if that works first, instead of saying 'We're not even interested. I'll go negotiate on the side,' " Waguespack said.
But Emanuel said breaking the contract isn't a possibility. "Let's be clear here, this does not solve all of our parking meter problems. That's just not possible," he said.
Most meters would operate for longer hours around the city under the proposal. Meter rates have increased sharply under the current lease, to $6.50 for an hour in the Loop, $4 in the surrounding business district and $2 in the neighborhoods.
Emanuel said he agreed to extend the hours in return for free Sundays, which he said would help people attending religious services as well as residents making their way around city neighborhoods — a potentially politically popular move with the type of drivers the mayor will face at the polls if he runs for re-election in 2015.
Under the plan, the majority of parking meters will have their operating hours extended from 9 p.m. until 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, except for those in the River North neighborhood north of the Loop. Those 9 p.m. meters, which operate seven days a week, will be extended three hours, until midnight.
The operating hours will not change for meters that expire at 6 p.m., a minority of the city's meters. There are 36,000 metered spaces in the city, according to Chicago Parking Meters website.
Under the plan, meters would be free on Sundays anywhere in the city except for the central part of town. Drivers would still have to pay to park in an area bounded by Roosevelt Road on the south, Halsted Street on the west, North Avenue on the north and Lake Michigan on the east.
Drivers would also pay more for a new convenience that has proven popular for other types of parking — using their cellphones to make electronic payments rather than sticking money or a credit card into a meter kiosk. That technology will come with a 35-cent convenience fee per transaction and would be available beginning in 2014, the mayor's office said.
Emanuel administration officials said they had no estimate Monday how much additional money the company will make thanks to those changes over the life of a revised deal.
The consortium that established the firm for the meter deal made a one-time payment of $1.15 billion to the city in return for the right to keep all the meter revenue and raise the rates over the course of the 75-year lease. In 2008, the City Council voted 40-5 to endorse the deal just two days after Daley made it public.
By the end of 2011, under budgets crafted by Daley aides, the city spent all but $125 million of that money to plug budget shortfalls. By then, many analysts had concluded the city was underpaid and lost too much control through the lease, which became a model for how not to privatize city assets.
While city residents, commuters and tourists alike have blasted the increased cost of parking, the impact of the deal extends to non-driving taxpayers as well. Under the contract, the firm can charge the city for any metered parking spaces taken out of service for festivals, street repairs and other reasons, as well as for lost revenue due to free parking for vehicles displaying disabled placards or plates.
Emanuel has disputed the company's "outlandish" bills for those costs since he came into office, while the tab grew to $103.9 million. He has frequently railed against the contract adopted by Daley and did so again Monday, saying "the company knows now that I'm a different type of mayor, that this is a different administration, and that Chicago has a different way of doing business these days."
The mayor said he will introduce the plans at the May 8 City Council meeting and give aldermen a month to review them before seeking a vote.
As part of the proposal, the Emanuel administration has agreed to pay $8.9 million to Chicago Parking Meters for spaces out of service for the last two years ending March 31 — for which the company had billed the city $49 million. The city also agreed to pay the company another $54.9 million for revenue lost for vehicles displaying disabled placards or plates during the last three years.
Emanuel spokeswoman Kathleen Strand said the firm also agreed to charge less in the future for out-of-service spots, but the mayor's office did not provide details. The city tab for disabled placards and plates is expected to drop beginning in 2014 because drivers displaying them will be required to pay to park if they are physically able to do so.
Professor H. Woods Bowman, a government finance expert at DePaul University who analyzed the lease after its passage and determined the city received too little, said too little information has been released thus far to analyze the affects of changes to the contract. He noted the city will still have to make millions of dollars in payments to the company each year — albeit less than they have during the early years of the lease.
"We went from a bad deal to a horrendous deal to a deal that's somewhere between a bad deal and a horrendously bad deal," Bowman said. "I'm glad the mayor and his team reduced the future problem, but it's still not a very good deal."Copyright © 2015, RedEye