Unbalanced Budgeting

The city's proposed parking-rate increases are a scandal. They aren't nearly large enough.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency -- the bureaucracy that runs our bus and light-rail systems, city-owned parking garages, and street-parking enforcement operations -- plans to raise parking fees at garages and parking meters citywide by 50 cents per hour, while raising bus and rail fares by 25 cents to $1.50. To help patch a $55 million budget shortfall for the Municipal Railway, the fines for illegal parking will also go up as much as $25, depending on the infraction.

But as policy, it's the parking-fee hike that's ridiculous. It discriminates against the little guy, and it's an abuse of the powers of the commonweal.

The parking-fee increase is not nearly large enough. It should be perhaps 20 times as much.

The reasons? Arithmetic and economics.

The city's proposed rate hike will take downtown metered street-parking fees from $2 up to $2.50 per hour. That's an increase of 25 percent, but the rate still constitutes a subsidy of between $5 and $7.50 per hour to downtown streetside parkers. That's right, California Parking Co., a private garage operator, charges $7.50 to $10 an hour to park in its various Financial District facilities. By definition, what those private garages charge is what the Financial District parking market will bear. The city has chosen to offer up to a 75 percent discount on that market rate at its 2,707 downtown parking meters. We're talking millions of dollars in unnecessary subsidies here.

Before you choke on the idea that charging $2.50 per hour for downtown parking is a misguided government subsidy, contemplate the obvious (but rarely contemplated, at least in California) idea that parking spaces aren't free.

Every 150 square feet the city uses to provide a parking space at the curb rather than a wider sidewalk, a transit lane, or a greenway that reduces runoff into the bay is a piece of city property that doesn't provide space for people to walk, ride bikes, take transit, or simply enjoy. And every time the city rents that space at a below-market rate for car parking, people are encouraged to drive, rather than move about in other ways. Even with the meter increases, at $2.50 per hour for convenient streetside parking the official city policy will lure motorists into our congested downtown area, which happens to be one of the most mass transit-rich neighborhoods in western North America.

That's simply stupid.

"We're looking at a balanced way to share the solution," is how Stuart Sunshine, deputy executive director at the MTA, described this madly lopsided budget fix to the San Francisco Chronicle.

If maintaining huge downtown parking subsidies is dumb, the other half of this supposedly balanced plan -- an increase in transit fares -- is plain loony.

The picayune hike in meter fees will only make up $13.5 million of the $55 million Muni budget shortfall. Muni plans to close the rest of the gap by hiking San Francisco's current $1.25 bus and rail fare to $1.50, raising an additional $24 million. The agency proposes to save another $15 million by reducing service.

Need I mention that making it that much less attractive to ride the train and bus -- and therefore a better option to drive -- will further increase congestion downtown and anywhere else buses and trains go frequently and affordably? Transit subsidies improve our quality of life by reducing traffic and increasing access. Parking subsidies in congested, transit-served areas make that quality worse.

Rincon Hill, a neighborhood just southeast of Market and the Embarcadero, is experiencing a high-rise housing boom. The adjoining South of Market area is transforming from a derelict industrial area into a mixed-use, high-rise neighborhood with thousands of new residents.

The MTA's "balanced solution" is a budget-year fix that pays no apparent attention to what's best, long-term, for the city: reduced congestion, increased access, and better quality of life. By discouraging transit use while leaving in place incentives to drive, it sets in motion a scenario in which downtown neighborhoods, old and new, will be incrementally more choked with smelly, loud, ugly, dangerous, space-hogging automobile traffic.

That's not balanced.

"That campaign was so diffuse. People made cash donations. We took meticulous records," protests Tom Ammiano, casting his mind back to his giddy 1999 write-in mayoral bid. "There was no intent to defraud."

Ammiano may be right about the intent, but the California Fair Political Practices Commission says his mayoral campaign violated California campaign finance law, which doesn't allow politicians to handle more than $100 in cash during campaigns -- except to deposit it into the bank. The law is meant to keep politicians from accepting bribes or otherwise diverting contributions to personal use -- things Ammiano is not accused of doing.

But his campaign did keep a petty cash drawer that held 50 times the amount of currency allowed under campaign finance law.

Back in 1999, when Ammiano uplifted many San Franciscans with an insurgent write-in campaign against incumbent Mayor Willie Brown, supporters flocked to his storefront office, many offering cash donations, others their time and expertise. Some helpfully ran around paying for photocopies and whatnot with money from a petty cash drawer. As it happens, those giddy idealists were breaking campaign finance law, for which Ammiano last month paid a $2,500 fine.

According to the California Fair Political Practices Commission, Ammiano's 1999 campaign accepted $5,800 in cash contributions without depositing them into a bank account. And campaign workers spent $2,182 at Copy Central, Kinko's, Arvey Paper, Office Depot, and other merchants without bothering to run the money through a checking account first.

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