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It's time to shift parking rates

Noel Weyrich is a Philadelphia writer Every grown-up knows that the first step in getting rid of pests is to cut off the supply of whatever attracts them. Ants in the kitchen? Put a tighter lid on the sugar jar. Pigeon poop on your stoop? Ask the nice lady next door to stop serving bread-crumb breakfasts to the birdies.

Noel Weyrich

is a Philadelphia writer

Every grown-up knows that the first step in getting rid of pests is to cut off the supply of whatever attracts them. Ants in the kitchen? Put a tighter lid on the sugar jar. Pigeon poop on your stoop? Ask the nice lady next door to stop serving bread-crumb breakfasts to the birdies.

So why is it that when it comes to traffic congestion in Center City, the grown-ups who manage our public environment refuse to address the question of parking rates?

It's no mystery, after all, why so may drivers crowd downtown streets every rush hour. They're attracted by dirt-cheap off-street parking.

"Early-bird special" all-day rates - "In by 9 a.m. and out by 6 p.m." - are as little as $11 and actually reward drivers for entering and leaving parking lots at the exact hours when traffic congestion peaks.

Midday traffic jams, on the other hand, are aggravated by ridiculously high short-term parking rates at lots and garages. Motorists unwilling to pay between $8 and $13 to park off-street for one hour instead clog Center City's arteries by slowly prowling in circles, rubbernecking in search of $1-per-hour spots at parking meters.

Gridlock has gotten so bad that the Center City District recently spent $120,000 studying the problem. In February, it released a report that came up with all sorts of inventive, creative and costly remedies, including redesigning streets, installing new parking meters, and adding more traffic cops.

The phrase

all-day parking rates

does not appear once in the report.

The study did not even attempt to measure the extent of "cruising," as it is called, for those cheap on-street spaces. Surveys in other cities, including New York and Los Angeles, have found that as much as 30 percent of midday traffic can consist of drivers trolling for cheap, metered parking.

The city could cut down on this silly source of congestion and also alleviate rush-hour traffic jams if it took the simple, inexpensive step of abolishing the early-bird special.

A city ordinance would ban early-bird pricing by requiring every licensed parking lot and garage to set its all-day rates no lower than 10 times the hourly rate charged for short-term parking.

Parking lots and garages that now charge regular all-day rates of between $10 and $24 would have to cut hourly rates to between $1 and $2.40 per hour for the first four hours. Reduced hourly rates would minimize midday cruising, while the early-bird reward for driving at peak congestion hours would disappear.

Even smarter: Combine this idea with an absolute ceiling on short-term rates for off-street parking. Imagine if hourly off-street rates for the first four hours were capped at 125 percent of the price for parking at the nearest on-street meter.

On a block where the parking meters cost $1 per hour, the lots and garages could not charge more than $1.25 per hour for the first four hours. Raise the meter rate to $1.50 an hour, and off-street parking would still be a very reasonable $1.87.

Would this bring financial ruin to the private parking companies? Hardly. In 2005, the Planning Commission estimated that lots and garages charged an average rate of just $1.27 per hour to the all-day customers that provided the bulk of parking-company revenues.

In Portland, Ore., where publicly owned garages already set downtown parking rates this way ($1.25 per hour, $12 to $15 all day), officials say that their garages make more money than those of private competitors with higher short-term rates and lower all-day rates.

Perhaps the Parking Authority could experiment with a Portland-style rate plan and see whether it really boosted revenues, as Portland officials claim. Then, if our for-profit parking barons found the results financially attractive, they could follow suit and our traffic troubles might lift without legislation.

Instead, the Parking Authority runs an 850-space garage at 10th and Filbert Streets that seems hell-bent on making traffic congestion worse. One hour of parking in this garage costs $9 (a powerful incentive for drivers to go meter-cruising), but the all-day early-bird special is just $11 - cheaper than a round-trip regional-rail ticket to Levittown, Yardley or Langhorne.

This garage even offers a "Crazy Eights" special - $8 if you're in before 8 a.m. and out before 8 p.m. Crazy is right. The Parking Authority is bribing drivers to bring their cars downtown, while a few blocks to the north, the Port Authority plans to spend $660,000 studying just why congestion is so bad around the Ben Franklin Bridge off-ramps.

In 2006, the Planning Commission issued a new Center City Parking Policy. The document restated the commission's decades-old position that parking rates should discourage rush-hour congestion and meter-cruising, and that the Parking Authority, as a public agency, should take the lead and set an example for the parking industry.

Representatives of both the Center City District and the Parking Authority sat on the steering committee that produced this document. They signed off on its conclusions. And the two agencies have ignored the policy's goals ever since.

Philadelphians have grown rightfully cynical about this common disregard for translating public policies into action. Most of us think of our dumb, congestion-inducing parking rates the way that old joke goes about the weather: Everyone complains, but no one ever does anything about it.

There is a glimmer of hope for change, however, with two new appointments by Mayor Nutter. Rina Cutler, once the Parking Authority's director, is now the city's deputy mayor for transportation. She is the first city official to acknowledge the congestion impact of meter-cruising, and she also has expressed a desire to do something about parking rates.

Then there's Mark Alan Hughes, Nutter's new director of sustainability. If he were to team up with Cutler on regulating parking rates as an air-quality measure, Hughes could lend some moral heft to an issue that is seldom seen in ecological terms.

Then maybe the small-minded minions of the Center City District and the Parking Authority could be shamed at last into working toward the very remedies they agreed to in the 2006 Center City Parking Policy.

On the other hand, it's just as likely that the Nutter administration will find it easier, like every administration before it, to allow the Parking Authority and the parking industry to continue to rule over rush hour however they see fit, just as they always have.