When it comes to Philadelphia’s most pressing civic needs, there’s a lot of potential answers: clean and safe streets, effective schools, better policing, more and better-paying jobs, affordable housing, reopening libraries, a cleaner and more frequent SEPTA, all come to mind. But a number of City Council members are instead turning attention to the parking tax.
Councilmember Cherelle L. Parker introduced a bill in May to reduce the parking tax from 25% to 17% starting in July. Cosponsored by six of Parker’s colleagues, the proposal comes after the city temporarily bumped the tax from 22.5% to 25% to fill a pandemic budget hole.
» READ MORE: Philadelphia considers parking tax cut
While the tax was already expected to return to 22.5% this year, Parker and colleagues claim that a further cut will have wide-reaching benefits — that it will stimulate the economy by bringing more people downtown, benefit car commuters across the city, and help provide well-paid jobs. But these claims don’t hold up.
Take, for example, the claim that the parking tax keeps people out of the city. Surely some area residents don’t often travel to Center City because of the cost and difficulty of parking their cars. But is this really going to change if the tax cuts bring parking rates down marginally? When it comes to attracting visitors, Philadelphia needs to play to its strengths, not its weaknesses. Banking on cheaper parking to secure the city’s economic recovery is like Doc Rivers drawing up a game plan that relies on Ben Simmons hitting free throws. Local shoppers who prioritize free and abundant parking will remain likely to pick King of Prussia and other suburban destinations over Center City because parking will always be significantly easier and cheaper there.
Even more egregious is the claim that the tax will help all kinds of car commuters in the city. The only commuters helped would be those who park in lots or garages found typically in Center City. If you drive and park on the street — not to mention if you walk to work, take SEPTA, bike, or carpool — you will see $0 in your hands as a result of this tax cut. Meanwhile, someone who drives past the Regional Rail stop a quarter-mile from his house to hop on I-76 or I-95 and contribute to traffic, congestion, and urban crowding could see a mild reduction in his commute costs. Is this really the best way to spend $130 million in foregone revenue over five years? As for the jobs claim, there’s no guarantee any of these tax breaks will trickle down to employees or hires.
That’s not to say that the city doesn’t need some kind of tax reform. But with all the taxes that disproportionately affect lower-income families in Philadelphia, from the extra sales tax to the soda tax to the wage tax that takes the same percentage of money from a millionaire as it does from a family earning wages under the poverty line, it’s baffling to start with a change that arguably benefits suburban commuters over anyone else.
It’s time to reject the parking tax cut and the mid-century urban planning thought it represents. While, of course, many people will continue to drive and park in Philadelphia, their presence is no more important than anyone else’s. Philadelphia relies on West and Northeast Philadelphians who take the El, North and South Philadelphians who take the subway, and people from all over the city and region who take buses, trolleys, and Regional Rail to get into town just as much as it relies on motorists. As Councilmember Parker said of Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed cuts to wage and business taxes, those who would reap the benefits “don’t live in the city of Philadelphia, and now some of them won’t ever be returning to Philadelphia to work. … So instead, why wouldn’t we be focused on some of the Philadelphians who both live here and they work here?”
If anything, that principle applies even more strongly to the parking tax. Instead of this cut, Philadelphia needs to lean into its strengths as a city. People don’t come to Philadelphia because they love parking garages — they come for our dynamic and diverse cultural offerings, our architecture, and walkable layout. Instead of pursuing a strategy that rewards parking magnates and a small slice of commuters, the city should focus on making the city better for those who enjoy city life and can tolerate the parking hassles that come with it.