Holidays in Philadelphia mean Dickens Village at Macy's, strings of lights over South 13th Street, and, this year, a few voices grumbling about the Philadelphia Parking Authority's annual present to the city: free Saturdays at parking meters.
"I think the sad thing is I'm looking for the PPA to be more ruthless," said Dena Driscoll, a member of the advocacy group 5th Square.
Every Saturday from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day, after 11 a.m., the PPA refrains from enforcing metered street parking in the city. The agency, and local businesses, pitch it as an incentive that brings to the city's stores and restaurants customers who might otherwise be turned off by the need to feed the meter.
"The idea of bringing your family down and spending the day shopping and wandering around is exciting," said Scott Petri, the PPA's chief executive. "Do we want people to go to New York and spend their money, or do you want them to come to Philadelphia?"
Driscoll, though, sees the policy as one that keeps money from the Philadelphia schools, which receive a portion of on-street parking revenue every year, in exchange for minimal benefit.
Driscoll argued that the people who want to come into the city will likely do so whether or not parking is free. The draws aren't the shops, she said, but the unique experiences.
"I just don't believe that you can get the same experiences you can get in Philadelphia at the King of Prussia Mall or the Cherry Hill Mall," Driscoll said.
SEPTA has no plans to offer free rides during the holidays to encourage visits to the city, a spokesperson for the transit agency said.
Driscoll also asked why the PPA didn't make garage parking free to provide an even more attractive incentive. That's just not what we've done, replied Martin O'Rourke, a spokesperson for the PPA.
The PPA is foregoing about $96,000 each Saturday in December, Petri said, and the agency estimated it loses about $400,000 in parking meter revenue by foregoing enforcement on Saturdays through New Year's Day. PPA personnel will still patrol the streets on Saturdays in December to ticket for illegal parking, he said. They just won't be checking the meters.
It's fuzzy how much of that uncollected money the school district would be owed. The PPA's state-mandated formula for the distribution of parking revenue divides it between the city and Philadelphia School District, but it annually raises the amount the PPA must pay the city before the district gets anything. This fiscal year, the PPA must pay the city no less than $39 million before it can give any money to the schools.
The district should get about $13.5 million this fiscal year after the city gets its cut, the PPA reported. That number takes into account the reduced revenue from meters in December. The PPA's on-street parking division is the subject of an audit by the city controller's office, which is looking at whether operations could be streamlined to leave more money for the schools. In 2017, that division of the PPA paid the city $37 million in the previous fiscal year and $13.5 million to the schools.
The street parking enforcement division collected $135 million in fiscal year 2017, according to PPA data.
Petri, who joined the parking authority at the beginning of this year after the ouster of longtime chief executive Vincent J. Fenerty Jr. amid sexual harassment accusations, stands by the policy. If it gooses sales revenue, he said, that more than offsets the money that might be raised from parking enforcement.
The problem is, no one seems to know if the policy actually accomplishes the goal of helping city businesses in any significant way. The meters were first shut off during the holiday season in the early 1990s under Mayor Ed Rendell, O'Rourke said. Rendell was looking for any way to attract people to a downtown that was nearly a ghost town after working hours.
A lot has changed since, and Center City Philadelphia today is thriving. Neither the PPA nor the city can estimate how much additional foot traffic or sales can be attributed to the free parking. Petri said he didn't have any plans to start trying to quantify the value of the program.
Meanwhile, the city's efforts to improve street safety and traffic suggest more turnover in street parking, not less, is a bigger help for city businesses, stated a report issued this year from the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability that outlined the city's goals for safer streets over the next seven years, The report recommended parking policy and pricing be adjusted to ensure cars don't linger in one spot, and there always be one or two open spaces on any block.
Focusing on dollars and cents misses the advantage of a break from meters, said Paul Levy, the chief executive of the Center City District. The free parking itself isn't the point, he said; it's the attention it brings to Center City businesses.
"To have a message that parking is free in Center City is a great piece of marketing to get people downtown," Levy said. "I think it's a good decision, and it's one that's supportive of the economy in Center City."
Uri Monson, the school district's chief financial officer, was agnostic about the parking policy, saying the district has no control over how the PPA enforces parking.
The city schools have a $3.1 billion budget, and $13.5 million from the PPA is a tiny piece of the pie, Monson said. Most districts rely on property taxes to fund the schools, he said, but in Philadelphia that revenue is carved up into chunks of money from sources such as parking, liquor sales, and casinos.
There could be merit to the argument that strong sales in city businesses would help the schools more than what likely would be a minuscule portion of $400,000 in parking revenue, he said. But, he said, battles over how much money the PPA generates for the schools misses the larger point that relying on the leftovers from parking revenue to pay for education is a poor funding model.
"This should not be part of the conversation about funding schools," Monson said, "at all."