Easton’s taken some important steps toward pricing parking at market rates over the past year. Electronic meters will make paying for parking more convenient, the longer meter hours will help manage parking demand during peak times, and lower garage rates will improve sorting between garage and curb parking based on how long people plan to stay. Since the meters Easton is getting are the same meters used by SF Park, the city might eventually be able to offer lower curb meter prices during off-peak hours.
The politics of this issue are difficult because so many people mistakenly believe parking is a public good, not a market good, and they therefore believe that the government should provide it. But in fact parking has neither of the two qualities that a public good must have – a parking space is both perfectly rivalrous and perfectly excludable. If your car is parked in a space, mine cannot be. This makes parking a market good.
So we need to congratulate Easton’s political leaders for moving toward a policy framework that treats parking more like the class of good that it is. Bethlehem is the only other Lehigh Valley municipality that’s gotten this close to getting it right, so Easton deserves a lot of credit.
But I also want to keep pushing politicians to get parking policy all the way right, and persuade them to see it as a market good, and so I will keep the criticism coming alongside the praise.
I’ve seen Sal Panto argue that Easton needs to buy up surface lots to provide more parking, and now JD Malone is reporting that they are taking steps to seize a lot through eminent domain to provide more city-owned parking spaces:
To augment the city’s inventory of parking spaces, council approved the first step toward seizing a property. The parking lot, with a tiny bank building at 37-43 N. Fourth St., might be the future home of a multiple-story parking deck, according to Steckman.
The city offered owner Scott G. Kindred more than he paid in 2010 for the .35-acre parcel but was refused, Steckman said. Kindred paid $70,000, according to Northampton County tax records. Steckman said the building would be torn down and the lot would be resurfaced to provide more paid off-street parking. He also said the site could be used for a multiple-story parking deck in the future.
At the same time as the city’s been moving toward market rates for parking, they’ve also been doubling down on the idea of public provision of parking, which I think is mistaken.
The parcel at 37-43 N. 4th Street is certainly blighted, and it’s perfectly sensible that the city would want to see a change of use there. But seizing the property and turning it into a somewhat better-looking surface parking lot is still blight, because surface parking lots are all ugly. What you really want there is a nice new apartment building with ground-floor retail.
The counterargument I anticipate is that the city wants to eventually turn the surface lot into structured parking, but I would counter that the city shouldn’t be building any more parking garages at all. If there is demand for more structured parking spaces, then a private parking garage company will build a new garage. If the demand is really there, then it’s like the proverbial $5 bill on the sidewalk. If it’s real, somebody will pick it up.
Building and owning parking garages has got nothing to do with the government’s core business, which is providing true public goods and public services. The reason the city has to manage curb parking spaces is because they own the roads – they have no choice but to manage the demand for curb spaces. Parking garages, by contrast, do not have to be publicly-owned, and frequently are not in other cities. That’s better, since it means that parking garages are on the tax rolls, and smart cities can even levy a separate parking tax to pay for transportation infrastructure and maintenance.
The next round of parking policy-making in Easton should involve not more asset acquisitions but asset sales – selling off the city’s garage and surface lots to private owners, and finding a private developer to own and operate the garage portion of the intermodal center.
Rather than buying up more parking assets, the better strategy for eliminating blight and surface lots downtown would be to replace the property tax with a land value tax. Lower or eliminate the tax on property improvements and raise the cost of owning vacant land, surface parking lots and underdeveloped parcels.