The Atlantic’s CityLab Features RU Sociology Prof Stephanie Farmer’s Research on the Privatization of Chicago’s Parking Meters

Anyone who’s ever ridden a bus in Chicago’s Loop knows it can be a . . . well . . . um . . . rather slow experience at times, a the vehicle lurches from stoplight to stoplight, discharging and picking up passengers, and competing with cars, trucks, etc. for space on the crowded, traffic-choked streets. That’s why Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, is a great transit option on the verge of implementation in Chicago as a way to use the power of buses more efficiently to provide genuinely rapid options for people in the city’s famous central business district — and eventually, out into the neighborhoods where hundreds of thousands of people depend upon bus service to get to work, to school, etc.

Central Loop BRT route plan (source: Mark Byrnes / CityLab)

Central Loop BRT route plan (source: Mark Byrnes / CityLab)

Eric Jaffe’s fine article from 26 Feb 2015 on The Atlantic’s CityLab blog features an in-depth analysis of Chicago’s BRT plans, and includes extensive commentary by Roosevelt’s own Dr. Stephanie Farmer, a sociologist who studies urban systems and who has done detailed research on Chicago’s notoriously unfortunate parking deal by former Mayor Daley, who privatized the city’s parking meters a few years’ back for a windfall one-time fee of $1.15B that now looks extremely short-sighted. As Jaffe writes:

Farmer StephanieThere’s no way to sugarcoat Chicago’s terrible parking deal. For a one-time fee of $1.15 billion—most of it spent immediately filling budget deficits—Chicago leased its parking spaces, and the meter revenue that comes with them, to Morgan Stanley for the next 75 years. As bad as the deal seems at face value, sociologist Stephanie Farmer of Roosevelt University in Chicago recently found it’s even worse in the weeds. Especially its implications for transportation planning. And especially it’s implications for planning a BRT network.

Farmer outlines the corrosive ways that the deal might impact Chicago’s emerging bus plans in a 2014 paper in Environment and Planning A. Turns out Morgan Stanley built protections into the deal that limited its own risk. Some of these protections, known as “adverse action” clauses, prevent the city from disrupting the meters for any reason. If Chicago shuts down meters temporarily for a parade, for instance, or permanently for a bus lane, it triggers an automatic “adverse action” compensation.

That compensation can take two main forms: either the city must move meters to a comparably popular location, which takes time, or it must pay what are called “true-up” penalties, which takes cash. In some cases, the city has taken out bonds to meet true-up penalties, meaning it owes interest on them over time, too. Together, the compensation rules could “have the effect of ossifying a particular configuration of the urban built environment,” writes Farmer, as costs force planners to abandon projects entirely.

“You can imagine the more that we have to pay—not just the true-up penalties, but you can tack on the interest payments to pay for the true-up penalties—it squeezes more and more out of the budget what we could actually do in terms of building sustainable transportation on the roads,” she tells CityLab.

Farmer says BRT is the transit mode “most impacted by true-up revenue penalties,” because it needs so much space for dedicated lanes. She reports that some early Chicago BRT routes avoided adverse action payments because they found sites for replacement meters. But all the planners she spoke with felt that eventually the city will run out of alternative locations, leaving planners to pay true-up fees, target suboptimal corridors, or design poor systems. Here’s how one planner put it to her:

At the very least, the BRT planning process in Chicago just got a lot longer. Farmer reports that CTA conducted a “parking utilization analysis” for each potential BRT route, which required workers to drive up and down the corridors for a week, assess the meter situation, then find comparable meter sites. Ultimately, she writes, planners are in the unenviable position of worrying about Morgan Stanley’s well-being rather than that of Chicago commuters.

“All the planners I talked to, they all pretty much agreed that now, when they make plans, they have to consider how their plans are going to be impacted by the parking meters,” says Farmer. “So it’s one more layer of consideration. It’s not necessarily always going to be a barrier, but it will be another part of the process.”

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