Costly decisions pending about parking in the city

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We spend a lot of time in Pittsburgh not getting the parking right.

Maybe that's inevitable in a city of 300,000 that doubles in size every workday, but it can make you crazy.

Two years ago, City Council and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl had a festive between-the-holidays showdown that ended with a plan that council all but shoved down the mayor's throat. It irrevocably shifted all the parking tax money for the next 31 years into the pension fund, avoiding a state takeover there. That left a hole in the budget that would be plugged by higher parking rates and longer enforcement hours.

Mr. Ravenstahl hated this plan. It wasn't that he was against higher parking rates and longer hours. He might have gone even higher, but he wanted to rescue pensions by leasing all the parking garages and spaces to a private company for the next 50 years.

Council stiff-armed him, and Mr. Ravenstahl petulantly offered a "cooperative veto" in time for council to override it before the New Year's Eve deadline. It's only gotten weirder since.

Mr. Ravenstahl has never gotten over this defeat, though he's never persuasively described why giving up control of some of the city's most valuable assets for the next half-century was such a great deal -- even for $452 million in payments. Chicago went all-in on private parking four years ago and Crain's Chicago Business just described the soaring rates as "an epic flop in former Mayor Richard M. Daley's legacy.''

Here, there was no flop, but there have been flip-flops. Councilman Bill Peduto, who will be running against Mr. Ravenstahl in the May mayoral primary, no longer thinks the city should institute meter enforcement from 6 to 10 p.m. at the start of next year, as council planned. He offers three reasons:

1. Not all the new meters, which accept credit cards, have been installed. Squirrel Hill, Shadyside and Bloomfield are among the neighborhoods still awaiting them. If evening enforcement arrives before the meters do, we're back to those harrowing days of mid-2011 when not even ice cream truck drivers had enough quarters to park long enough to dine out.

2. If evening meter enforcement comes to neighborhoods that have permit parking on the side streets, visitors wanting to park free will just park on those side streets and take spaces from residents. Extending permit enforcement past 6 p.m. is an unwieldy process that has to be approved by each individual neighborhood.

3. The Parking Authority won't be handing the additional money over to the general fund anyway. It's keeping what it reaps for its own infrastructure improvements.

"I never would have voted to raise the rates if I knew the Parking Authority was going to keep the money,'' Mr. Peduto said.

It's such a mess, the near-impossible just occurred: Mr. Peduto and Mr. Ravenstahl agreed on something. The mayor said recently, "My inclination is to show support for small business and keep [the meter enforcement cutoff] at 6 p.m.''

Most episodes of "Survivor'' don't have this many factions and shifting alliances, yet this is all much ado about not very much. Free beats not free, but most people understand it costs something to park in this city. The new meters allow plenty of flexibility; if motorists could get a few hours parking for not much money after 6 p.m., they wouldn't be deterred from driving in for a show, a concert or their favorite restaurant.

But the city can't get its act together. Mr. Peduto doesn't have five council votes to stop enforcement from stretching to 10 p.m. beginning Jan. 2, and the mayor has been chronically unable to get five votes for anything. Meantime, the Parking Authority expects it will take most of next year to install the new card-taking meters citywide.

Council President Darlene Harris says "in order for this [pension-funding] formula to work you really can't touch it.'' Office-seekers "try to be everything to everyone,'' she said, but bills have to be paid.

That sounds as if nighttime enforcement will return in a few weeks, but I really can't promise anything beyond this: I'm taking the T.


Brian O'Neill: or 412-263-1947.


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