New York City Launches Parking Meter Privatization Initiative

Last week, the Bloomberg administration in New York City announced plans to issue a request for qualifications from private bidders interested in a potential lease of the city’s parking meter system, following in the footsteps of Indianapolis and Chicago, which have inked similar deals in recent years. This is a sensible move for NYC, as privatization can not only unlock value trapped in parking assets, but it can also provide a powerful means of deploying new, cutting-edge parking technology at a time when fiscal conditions prevent the city from making such investments on its own.

As Ted Mann wrote in The Wall Street Journal last week:

Officials said they are motivated in part by a belief that a private company could help alleviate some of the well-known frustrations of parking in New York: circling block after block in a search for an empty spot or dashing out in the middle of dinner to feed a meter.

Although other cities have embraced more driver-friendly technologies, New York has been slow to catch up.

The city’s 7,800 muni-meters represent only a slightly more modern approach—they accept credit and debit cards—than the 31,000 single-space meters that gobble coins in boroughs outside Manhattan.

With enough incentive, officials believe, an outside party could come up with innovations for the Internet age, such as a system to pay with a smartphone or a mobile app that would direct drivers to vacant spaces detected through sensors in the pavement.

In the Bronx, the city Department of Transportation is running a pilot program to test pavement sensors, including whether they will work in New York’s climate. But that is a small test, and broadening that program, or one like it, to the entire city could be risky and expensive.

“The odds are higher that [private companies] will move with greater alacrity,” Deputy Mayor Robert Steel said.

A deal also could offer potential savings for the city on labor costs, but officials said it is too soon to say what a contract might look like.

[…] New York City officials said they aren’t looking for an upfront balloon payment and wouldn’t strike a deal that relinquished control over the setting of parking-meter rates—a key source of friction in Chicago.

New York’s meters brought in $149 million in revenue in the last fiscal year, a spokesman for the city DOT said. Parking tickets are handled separately from meter operations, and neither enforcement nor parking-ticket revenue would be included in any privatization deal, a city spokeswoman said.

“We’re not looking to sell out the system, which some people have done and which I don’t understand at all,” Mr. Steel said. “Our process has been to consider locking in the current performance, and, if it makes sense, transferring the risk to a third party.”

[…] If the city’s request for qualifications reveals suitable bidders, a request for proposals would follow, likely several months from now.

More here from Noah Kazis at Streetsblog, as well as this follow-up article from Mann.

Notably, the Bloomberg administration has been emphatic that if a deal is ultimately reached, the city will retain controls over parking rates and parking violation enforcement. Some journalists have misconstrued this to imply that similar deals in Indianapolis and Chicago lacked those controls, but that is not the case.

For example, Chicago officials authorized a set schedule of rate increases for the first five years of the 75-year lease term, and then rates are allowed to adjust annually beyond that with a maximum cap (capped by inflation). However, city council approval is required for any rate increase after the first five years. So the private concessionaire cannot just change whatever rates it wants; rates are controlled either in the contract (first five years) or must be approved by the city council (remainder of lease term). The Indianapolis privatization has similar rate controls.

Earlier this week, my colleague Harris Kenny posted his parking asset privatization update extracted from Reason Foundation’s recently released Annual Privatization Report 2011 (APR2011). The article offers an update on last year’s news from the Chicago and Indianapolis parking leases, and it also provides an overview of other governments’ efforts in 2011 to explore similar parking transactions, including Los Angeles, Sacramento, New Jersey Transit and Pittsburgh.

Momentum appears to be continuing in 2012. In addition to New York CIty, some of the more notable developments thus far in 2012 include:

Ohio State University: As Harris noted in APR2011, last year Ohio State University officials released a request for qualifications—and approved seven potential bidders for—a potential long-term lease of its parking system, which would be a first-of-its-kind asset monetization by a public university. Last last month, OSU took the next step, issuing a request for proposals seeking at least $375 million in an upfront payment from a private operator in return for a 30-50 year concession. If a deal is finalized, then the school would put the entire upfront payment into its long-term investment pool to support the university’s long term academic mission. Bids are due by the end of this month. More details are available on the university’s parking proposal homepage. Predictably, students and professors don’t like it.

Sacramento, CA: As Harris and I wrote back in March, officials in Sacramento had been pursuing a lease of its downtown parking meters and garages in order to help finance a brand new downtown NBA arena to try to keep the Sacramento Kings from leaving town. As we wrote, parking privatization makes sense on its own, but doing so in order to subsidize a boondoggle arena and its wealthy patrons does not. Luckily for Sacramento taxpayers, this arena deal crashed and burned last month, when the city and the Kings’ owners reached an irreconcilable impasse in their larger negotiations to finance the arena. More details here. Interestingly, one media outlet reported recently that city staff have left open the possibility of a standalone parking asset lease to generate revenues for other capital assets.

Harrisburg, PA: The state receiver charged with paying down Harrisburg’s staggering debt and closing structural budget deficits is pursuing several potential sales and long-term leases of city assets as part of the city’s fiscal recovery plan, including a long-term lease to operate the city’s system of parking garages, meters and surface lots. Back in March, the city’s receiver shortlisted 12 of 18 potential bidders for a long-term lease of the city’s parking assets, and last month nine of those bidders submitted responses to a request for qualifications. The receiver is expected to make a final selection by June. The state’s Commonwealth Court must approve any final deal, and officials expect that the Court could make its determinations as early as late June.

Wilkes Barre, PA: Last Friday, the Wilkes-Barre City Parking Authority released a request for qualifications for a 30-year or 50-year lease of its 2,273 garage and surface lot spaces and 800 parking meters. It has also hired a parking consultant to help assess the potential value of its parking assets and prepare the RFQ. City officials are seeking an upfront payment of at least $20 million, and responses are due back by June 8, 2012. The RFQ is available here.

Reason Foundation has a lot of research available in its archive on the privatization of parking assets. For more, see here.