Wednesday, October 19th, 2011
I’ve been very impressed with the Rahm Emanuel administration so far in Chicago. He’s made a lot of good moves. These range from hiring Gabe Klein as transport commissioner to a plan to hike water rates that will enable to city to collect more from suburbanites. (I suggested as long as a year or two ago that privatizing water might be a good idea because it would enable the city to establish that revenue stream – I’m glad to see him thinking that way).
There’s more, but what I want to highlight today is a plan for the first steps towards congestion pricing in Chicago. I don’t believe a London style congestion charge makes sense in Chicago. Unlike with the City of London, business in the region is not as compelled to locate in the Loop, so maintaining convenient access there is important to business growth.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a role for congestion charges, and one of them is in parking. The Tribune reports that Emanuel plans to implement parking surcharges for downtown garages and lots during weekdays. The money will be used for transit capital improvements, including a new Green Line station at McCormick Place.
This is a great move. In fact, it was one of my recommendations from my transit plan from a couple years ago. Parking surcharges encourage people to use our existing (fixed cost) transit system, and can also make a nice stream of additional money for transit at a time it is desperately needed. Plus it is a way to make drivers pay for the congestion costs they impose on others.
Also, the fact that this is a weekday only charge is a step in the right direction towards variable pricing by government in response to demand. There’s a lower elasticity of demand for commute trips during the week, plus great transit alternatives for those who don’t want to pay to drive. Weekends have lower transit availability (particularly on Metra), and have a higher percentage of discretionary trips.
The Tribune ran a story in which some criticized the city for not including meters and not going with a pure congestion charging solution. Part of the problem is that the city’s parking meter lease has a fixed rate schedule embedded in it, which, while it could be changed, would be cumbersome to do so. I already directly highlighted how this lease constrains policy adaptations to changing conditions. It’s one of the bad attributes of the lease, but that’s not Rahm’s fault.
From a practical standpoint, a tax is the simplest way in the short term to make this work, particularly since such taxes are already collected today. There’s no reason that in the future the city can’t evolve towards a more pure congestion pricing model, but when you are trying to move fast, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
There is one thing I’ve heard causing anxiety out there. Private spaces in residential buildings would be exempt. But some downtown residents rent spaces in buildings they don’t live in and are concerned they are going to get zapped. I don’t know what the details of the proposal are, but I’d encourage the city to get out in front of this issue. If there’s no problem, then be sure to aggressively communicate why not. If there is, then probably some tweaks need to be made to avoid hurting bona fide full time downtown residents.
In any case, in my view this is a good proposal and part of a series of moves that are taking the city in the right direction.