Who Gets Rich Off Your Parking Tickets?

May 19th 2015

Dante Atkins

When you park at a city meter, you think you know what happens: you make your payment, and the city collects it. If you forget to pay or stay too long, a parking enforcement person from the city will write you a ticket, and then you owe the city even more money. Oh well—at least you’re helping to fund vital city services, so those parking meter payments have a silver lining.

Unless you’re in Chicago. In that case, your parking meter fees line the pockets of Wall Street banks and the oil sheiks of the United Arab Emirates. And unless you survive to a very old age, they will continue to for as long as you live.

How is that possible?

In a word, privatization. What is the privatization? It is the process of leasing or selling government assets to the private sector. Privatization is especially popular among fiscal conservatives who tend to believe that privatizing government services will result in higher efficiency and lower costs. Privatized prisons are perhaps the most well-known example of private corporations taking charge of public facilities—it’s a $70 billion industry that creates perverse incentives for governments—but it doesn’t end there. Privatization is an increasing trend in our nation’s museums, airports, parks, and zoos. Even the cafeteria and janitorial services in the United States Senate are outsourced to a private company.

Sometimes, though, ideology and efficiency aren’t nearly as motivating as desperation. Cities facing tight budget crunches will literally sell off long-term revenue streams to private entities for a quick infusion of cash. Usually, it’s a bad deal for the city, and the privatization of the parking meters in Chicago is probably the most painful example.

In 2008, the City of Chicago was facing a particularly bad year in a series of crippling budget shortages. In an effort to find a short-term cash infusion, Mayor Daley sold the rights to the city’s parking meters to an entity called Chicago Parking Meters, LLC—a private consortium whose members include a handful of big banks and the sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi. The terms of the deal: the private group paid the City of Chicago $1.2 billion up front—but in exchange, they own all the parking meter revenue for the entire city for the next 75 years.

On its face, this was a bad deal for Chicago taxpayers. The total revenue that Chicago’s parking meters will end up generating over 75 years will far exceed the $1.2 billion that the city received from selling its revenue stream. That’s bad enough. Even worse for the city? The terms of the lease require the city to guarantee the private consortium a consistent revenue stream. Almost immediately after the deal went into effect, the rates at Chicago’s meters spiked, and profits for the private leaseholders are guaranteed at that rate because the city can’t reduce the rates without paying the difference to the private investors.

But that’s not all. Each meter is given an assessment of how much it is expected to earn per day. If the city were to remove the meter for some reason, it would have to pay a lump sum in advance of how much money that meter would have been expected to make over the lifetime of the deal. That applies to temporary closures, too, when the city wants to shut down a street for a parade or some other public event. In that case, they’re contractually obligated to pay for the loss in revenue based on the expected daily intake of all the meters that were shut down.

Is there anything the city can do about this?

Likely not, outside of nibble around the edges. There is a legal theory that the contract is unenforceable because cities are not allowed to abdicate their own police powers to a private entity, and a lawsuit to that effect is pending. Barring that, the city could theoretically buy its way out of this horrible deal, but it simply can’t afford to: doing so would require paying back the money it received for the right to the meter revenue in the first place, and the city simply doesn’t have that kind of money to spend.

The case of Chicago’s parking meters may be the most egregious example, but the problem isn’t unique: many state and local budgets fell into red ink during the recession, and some made the decision to sell off public assets to plug a budget hole and keep the lights on. But such deals are only a quick fix with no lasting value. After all, you can only sell something once. And as the City of Chicago is finding out the hard way: in these types of situations, a bad deal is far worse than no deal.