Chicago's parking meter fiasco: privatization or privation?

Privatizing and modernizning city parking meters isn't necessarily a bad idea, but Chicago's execution of a $1.15 billion deal for its 36,000 meters was totally "screwed up."

From a distance, it seemed like such a smart deal: in exchange for $1,157 billion, the city of Chicago would allow a private concern to modernize and take charge of its 36,000 parking meters in a 75-year lease.

A lawsuit filed late last week challenges the deal on several points. The city is still spending to repair what is now the new entity's meters. A private concern should not hold sway where driver licenses can be lost. A Chicago Inspector's general report critical of the deal estimated city has been shortchanged by about half in a poorly-crafted deal.  Word out of Chicago this morning was that Mayor Daley was ready to apologize that he had "screwed up" this deal.

You've heard it before. Less expensive private enterprise takes over state and municipal functions such as prisons, water departments and security in what are known as "public, private partnerships" or PPPs.  How can government compete with private concerns that are more efficient and responsive or so the argument goes?

There's lots of reasons not to like the Chicago deal. Finding a legal place to park in any large city is hard enough without knowing who's really in charge. Here's a Slashdot post describing how the new shared meter kiosks will work:

"1. Park your car. 2. Walk up to 1/2 block to a Pay Box. 3. Wait in line to use it. 4. Use coins or credit cards to purchase parking time — up to $84 for 24-hours (add $50 if you run out of time). 5. Wait for a paper receipt to be printed. 6. Walk up to 1/2 block back to your car. 7. Place the receipt on your dashboard. 8. Head off to your destination, perhaps passing the Pay Box a second time."

That doesn't seem so smart, does it?  I'm all for high tech, but someone should do a study on how much productivity is lost to serving parking meters like this.

One criticism of the Chicago deal is that it might be trying to do too much too fast. Replacing its old meters with shared parking space kiosks and changing ownership is a lot of digest for the city's hapless drivers. Indeed, Denver is looking at privatizing its meter operations, but wants to maintain control over rates and get drivers used to the idea before making wholesale changes.

One also has to question how smart it was to close a budget gap and in essence give away the city's extensive parking meter infrastructure for such a long time. Budget gaps could have been closed by a much shorter lease period arrangement, the Inpector General's report concludes. And the idea of putting more than $1 billion at one time into Chicago's public coffers is downright chilling.

Knowing Chicago and Illinois politics, it's hard to not to imagine payoffs, bribes and public-be-damned attitude were not all part this deal. I don't have any proof except of that except it's Chicago in the Land of Lincoln.

The good news is that Chicago has shown the rest of the country and the world exactly not how to privatize large networks of parking meters.

Follow me on Twitter.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com