The Privatization Backlash

A few years ago, Chicago residents accustomed to parking on the street got a rude shock. Parking-meter rates had suddenly gone up as much as fourfold. Some meters jammed and overflowed when they couldn’t hold enough change for the new prices. In other areas, new electronic meters had been installed, but many of them didn’t give receipts or failed to work entirely. And free parking on Sundays was a thing of the past.

The new meter regime sparked mass outrage. People held protests and threatened to boycott. But there was little recourse: The city had leased its 36,000 meters to a private Morgan Stanley-led consortium in exchange for $1.2 billion in up-front revenue. The length of the lease: 75 years.

If the meter situation seemed like a bad deal for Chicago’s parkers, it would soon become clear that it was an even worse one for the city’s taxpayers.

An inspector general’s report found that the deal was worth at least $974 million more than the city had gotten for it. Not only would the city never have a chance to recoup that money or reap new meter revenue for three-quarters of a century, clauses buried in the contract required it to reimburse the company for lost meter revenue. The city was billed for allowing construction of new parking garages, for handing out disabled parking placards, for closing the streets for festivals. The current bill stands at $61 million, though Mayor Rahm Emanuel has refused to pay and taken the case to arbitration instead.

How did this happen? The meter deal passed the city council just four days after then-Mayor Richard Daley—desperate to fill a recession-caused budget hole—presented it. There were no public hearings, and the aldermen never saw the bid documents. Afterward, some aldermen who voted for it said they wished they’d known more of the details, but it was too late. “We’re stuck with it for the next 71 years,” Alderman Roderick Sawyer told me recently.

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