A Call for Free-Market Parking 

Portland's Parking System Lags Behind Its Progressive Transit Policies

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WHEN IT COMES to parking rates—the largest generator of local cash for transportation projects—Portland has been giving itself the short end of the stick.

Park curbside to grab a sandwich at SW 5th and Oak, and the tab at a city parking meter is $1.60 an hour. Park a few feet away, in a private lot run by City Center Parking, and it costs $5 an hour. By keeping its meter rates below market value, Portland is not only passing up a huge stream of revenue for its cash-starved transportation bureau—it's also failing to live up to its own goal of encouraging people to drive less.

This year, Seattle and San Francisco rolled out new "variable parking" plans that set parking rates according to models based on supply and demand. Not Portland. However, the city experimented with the idea around Jeld-Wen Field during Timbers games this season.

The city overall has 8,437 metered parking spots, bringing in roughly $19 million annually by charging $1 an hour for Lloyd Center spots and $1.60 an hour on the Westside. Meanwhile, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) is hurting for cash, in part because its funding system is based largely on the state gas tax. As the city promotes non-car transportation options, people are driving less and gas tax revenue is falling short of expectations ["Overcommitted!," News, Dec 15].

"We fund people here to go out and actively undermine our financial system. Over the longer haul, something has to give," says PBOT Director Tom Miller, adding that he'd welcome it if city council reworked Portland's parking system, both to raise revenue and also to promote the city's goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

"We are not anywhere close to market value on the cost of these stalls," Miller says. "Parking is a resource we manage on behalf of the public, and I think the public expects PBOT to manage its resources for maximum return."

Portland's experiment around Jeld-Wen this year had big returns. At 449 meters during 20 Timber's home games last season, city council agreed to double the hourly price of parking and also extend evening meter times for three hours. Portland's SmartMeters already had the technology to set different parking rates at specific times. The change nearly tripled city revenue from the parking spots: from $2,205 on an average non-game Friday to $6,398 on the Timbers' May 6 match against Philadelphia.

But despite that success, market-based parking isn't on city council's agenda right now.

Mayor Sam Adams, Miller's boss, says that although he's looking at "various things" to raise revenue, variable parking is not on the front burner. A variable-parking plan floated by Portland State University this year also has stalled.

Last winter, San Francisco scored a $24 million federal grant to create SFpark, a market-based parking system. New meters detect empty spaces and raise or lower prices by as much as 50 cents an hour—which consumers can track citywide on smart-phone apps.

Seattle's parking changes aren't quite that fancy. But starting in 2011 the city upped rates in its four busiest neighborhoods and cut prices in 11 sleepier areas. Both plans were aimed toward freeing up parking, not generating revenue, and both of those cities say the market-based system has been revenue neutral so far, since they slashed rates while raising others.

San Francisco and Seattle's systems were inspired by the research of progressive parking guru Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking. Shoup says variable parking shouldn't necessarily be used to generate more city revenue, but that it's smarter than asking politicians to be on the hook for every parking rate discussion.

"Does Portland want to look more like San Francisco or Seattle? Or does it want to look like Phoenix?" asks Shoup. "It makes much more sense to adopt a rule for parking prices, rather than every time, on every block, anyone wants to change the price of parking, it has to go before city council."

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