Chicago aldermen approve free Sunday parking, longer meter hours

June 5, 2013

Flickr/David Hilowitz
File: Chicago parking sign. The city council voted in changes to the city's parking meters on June 5.

Chicago drivers will soon be spared from having to feed parking meters on Sundays, but they’ll make up for it with longer meter hours during the rest of the week, under changes to the city’s unpopular parking privatization contract that the City Council approved on Wednesday.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s tweaks to the much-hated privatization plan passed the full Council by a vote of 39 to 11, even as a cadre of aldermen remained concerned the changes could hurt local businesses, and possibly lead to profit windfall for Chicago Parking Meters LLC, the private firm that runs the meters.

But a comfortable majority of aldermen nonetheless backed the mayor’s proposal, and praised him for negotiating a deal that the Emanuel administration claims will save the city about $25 million a year in penalties it would have had to pay to the meter company.

“I have true respect for opening up the wound and cauterizing it the best you possibly can,” said 33rd Ward Ald. Dick Mell, a staunch Emanuel ally.

Wednesday’s final vote is the culmination of months of fighting between City Hall and Chicago Parking Meters LLC.

The company had billed the city about $49 million for meters that were taken out of service during the last two years for things like street festivals and construction. But as part of the agreement, the city will pay only $8.9 million for those years, and will end up paying about $1 billion less in penalties over the remaining 71 years of the parking meter lease, according to the mayor’s office.

The second part of the deal is what’s become known as the “Sunday swap”: In exchange for free Sunday parking in most Chicago neighborhoods, drivers will have to start feeding the meters longer beginning sometime this summer. Hours for non-residential meters outside the central business district will extend from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m., while meters around the River North nightlife district will now operate until midnight.

The mayor has said repeatedly that, with his changes, he’s “trying to make a little lemonade out of a big lemon.”

But speaking before Wednesday’s vote. Ald. Bob Fioretti turned that talking point on its head.

“Some lemons shouldn’t be made into lemonade,” Fioretti said. “Some lemons should be returned to the store for a refund.”

It was the Sunday swap - which some aldermen say was shoe-horned into the deal by Emanuel to score political points with voters - that plagued some aldermen.

Fioretti was one of a handful of aldermen who led the charge against Emanuel’s proposal during four days of painstakingly detailed City Council hearings. But an effort to separate the two parts of the deal failed in committee on Monday, after the Emanuel’s administration warned that tinkering with any part of the negotiated settlement would sink the deal entirely.

Aldermen also questioned the administration’s math that CPM stands to lose about $8.4 million in revenue each year as a result of the free Sundays, while it will make only about $7.4 million from the extended hours. Emanuel’s staff hired an outside firm to corroborate those estimates - a study that could cost the city about $250,000.

But the possibility of giving any more revenue to the meter company was too much for some aldermen, who still feel burned by the original 2008 meter privatization that led to dramatically higher parking rates across the city, after former Mayor Richard Daley crammed the deal through the City Council in just three days.

The city got $1.15 billion in the deal, but drivers got saddled with some of the highest parking rates in the country.

Free Sunday parking will kick in mid-summer, at the earliest. But some aldermen are already talking about reinstating paid Sundays, as some small businesses say parking pay boxes help keep customers moving through high-traffic retail areas.

“Meters are for economic development, okay? They were never thought of as a revenue source,” said Ald. Tom Tunney, who said he plans to fight for paid Sunday parking in some areas of his North Side ward. “Sunday is the first- or second-busiest day in our neighborhoods. Give free meters on Tuesday.”

Language allowing aldermen to scale back free Sunday parking was not part of the ordinance that passed Wednesday. But the mayor’s office has said those changes can be made later, on a ward-by-ward basis.

Alex Keefe covers politics for WBEZ. Follow him @akeefe.