The following is from a story in Friday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about new machines with an ingenious way of capturing the money of people parking at metered spaces on Pittsburgh's streets:
"A dozen machines will be installed on the North Shore. They'll be put into service after the ribbon-cutting at 12:30 p.m. Thursday at 115 Federal St."
A ribbon-cutting. For a parking fee machine? I am scratching my head so hard over this that I will soon be hitting skull bone -- and then it starts to hurt.
I certainly understand symbolic, celebratory gatherings surrounding public improvements like the completion of, say, a new highway or bridge. I get that the inaugural voyage of something impressive like the Queen Mary merits breaking a bottle of fine Champagne. I don't even mind when officials in suits don hard hats and pose with shovels for the groundbreaking of a new school or hospital. (Actually, that's a pretty ludicrous ceremony -- just let the real workers start doing their job already -- but let's not worry about that now.)
But to celebrate the installation of a new wave of parking meters? Sheesh, you could offer me a bag of newly minted quarters depicting every one of the 50 states, and I still wouldn't attend -- other than perhaps while carrying a protest sign. I'm not about to applaud the latest technology that helps my city reap money for granting me the right to park on its streets, any more than I would cheer if it started charging for use of the air within its borders.
I'm no Tea Party anti-government type -- the government does a lot of good things, like, um, like, um ... like that time it provided a school crossing guard who kept me from crossing the street in front of a car. I was 42 at the time, so it was especially good she was there, as my reflexes by then had diminished from what they were at age 7.
But if the Tea Party could have more of a menu of anti-government factions, enabling you to just vociferously oppose the aspects of government you hate while letting you silently acquiesce with everyone else to the rest, the TP might get a lot more members -- some of them even rational. I'd be happy to help lead the subset that shouts down city officials at Pittsburgh Parking Authority meetings, while leaving it to others to run the cripple-the-national-economy contingent, as I stand off to the side, winking broadly so everyone knows I'm only half-certifiable instead of all the way.
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None of this is to suggest the Pittsburgh Parking Authority is doing a bad job. Heck, the new machines are presumably a good thing, enabling creation of more spaces and the option of paying for parking time with a credit card instead of always rummaging around in the front seat for whatever stray quarters can be found.
Our concern is more with the principle behind the authority than its execution. It's hard to embrace the concept of paying to park on a city street, though, yes, rationally, it would be impossible for Downtown, Oakland and other places to function if you simply opened the gates and invited, "Sure, park wherever you want and don't worry about paying. Have fun."
One troubling aspect of the new technology is the loss of the indescribable joy of finding a broken parking meter. In the existing world, a person slogging through a hot workday or series of tedious errands while the little aggravations of life mount can have a day rescued by stumbling upon a meter that refuses to accept a quarter. That's a game-changer right there. Life seems less daunting when you've got extra coins in your pocket for a soda or panhandler.
Unless these new multispace collection machines work with all the reliability -- or unreliability, we should say -- of the Liquor Control Board's abandoned wine kiosks, the days of such unexpected treasures are gone. You get to the machine, pay your money and even punch in your license plate number to leave proof that you're not a parking scofflaw.
It may be efficient. It may be progress. It may be a boost to the city's ever-needy coffers.
But a cause for celebration? Hrumpf. When the high school bands start playing and the balloons are released and the bottle of Korbel is broken over the first new machine, expect to see one guy off to the side holding a protest sign (paid for with all of the quarters found under the car floor mats).
Gary Rotstein: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1255.