Most rational people agree that parking is not free. Whether it is downtown Sarasota, St. Armands Circle or Westfield Southgate Mall.
A space for parking costs money to buy, build and maintain. When it is on privately owned land, such as the mall, the parking is plentiful and appears to be free. But the cost of that space is built into the leases paid by merchants, who include the cost of parking in the price of the goods sold in their stores.
But when parking spaces are publicly owned, such as they are for street parking and parking ramps downtown, at St. Armands Circle and on Hillview, things get murkier. Who should pay? And how much?
The answer to the first is fairly easy. Users should pay. There is no good principle behind requiring taxpayers in general to pay for parking spaces on Main Street or St. Armands or elsewhere.
But how should users pay and how much? That is the crapshoot in this.
Because these locations have many small businesses and no single owner — such as a mall owner — there is no good way for free parking to be covered through the cost of merchandise. Plus, there is not plentiful parking, meaning that parking spaces need to turn over many times for businesses to be successful. Employees cannot be allowed to take up spaces all day.
So Sarasota has vacillated over the years between free parking for two hours and parking meters. The city’s parking department has been losing money, and that was one of the elements driving the move back toward parking meters.
But that is probably the worst reason to put in parking meters — to raise revenue for the government parking department.
Meantime, the downtown merchants complain that meters are chasing away customers. The city has bagged them until October.
There is a solution to this ongoing conundrum that is becoming an increasing choice nationwide: Get the city out of the parking business altogether. Let the private sector decide how much to charge and determine the best pricing scheme.
If the city were to privatize its meter program, it could gain an immediate windfall of cash — some of which could be put into a long-term rainy-day fund, and much of which could be used to get through the current crises. Plus, it would eliminate a long-term cost and nuisance.
This is not a radical idea. Chicago, run by Democrats since the Flood, is already doing this. Other cities, such as Indianapolis and Los Angeles, are considering privatizing meters, plus much more. Texas may privatize Austin’s mass transit system. Ohio is looking to privatize its prisons and turnpikes as others have already done. Sacramento is privatizing its golf courses. Chicago sold the Skyway and downtown parking garages for billions.
The privatization trend makes sense. By nature, government is not particularly good at much. Indeed, no organization can be expected to be good at such a broad and varied number of services as local governments provide. It is fantasy to think otherwise.
One argument that has been raised by opponents of this idea elsewhere is that it could make parking too expensive. That’s a stupefying position, suggesting a sort of knee-jerk anti-business worldview. Here’s why:
A private company will price the spaces as high as the market will bear and to be competitive with other parking options. If the parking company prices the spaces too high, it won’t have customers and go out of business. This is how private enterprise works every day — sellers and buyers find a happy medium.
It’s hard to see circumstances where the goals of the merchants and a private-parking operator would not coincide. Both would want the spots filled with paying customers.
The city of Sarasota has had nothing but headaches and expenses running parking. This is not what the city should be doing.
As Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said when awarding the meter franchise: “This is the best thing that has happened for us in regards to getting out of this business. This is not the core business of the city of Chicago.”
Nor is it that of Sarasota. It is worth pressing forward to see if privatizing would work. Imagine a city where parking controversies were no longer part of the landscape.