1,800 added since Lori Lightfoot became mayor

1,800 added since Lori Lightfoot became mayor


Gary Kinsler has a succinct take on the parking meter pay box that popped up one year ago in front of his car repair shop in the North Center neighborhood: “It’s not helping anybody. It’s just another form of tax, it’s just taxing people.”

For years, the spots in front of his business on Lincoln Avenue, Autohaus, were free — even as motorists grumbled while feeding meters throughout the city that put money in the pockets of private investors as part of Chicago’s infamous 2008 parking meter deal.

But those free parking spots disappeared in July 2021 when Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration decided to install meters up and down Lincoln north of Irving Park Road, including those in front of Kinsler’s shop. Those were just some of the 1,802 spaces that have been metered since Lightfoot took office in 2019, city records show.

Now ticket writers are “like vultures on a branch waiting for prey,” ready to swoop down and slap the unwelcome orange envelopes on windshields outside businesses on Lincoln, Kinsler said.

“We get a lot of customers that get pissed off, because they try to get into the shop, they park out there, put in a dollar or two and by the time they get back out there, they already got a ticket on the car,” he said.

Since Lightfoot took office in May 2019, the new parking meter spots have collected nearly $14.6 million from drivers, with the amount going up each year as more metered spaces have been added to the grid, the city records show.

The new meters are the latest twist in an ongoing saga that has enraged Chicagoans for more than a decade, focused mostly on the city’s decision 14 years ago to sell control of all citywide parking meters for 75 years to a private investment for $1.15 billion. The private firm already has recouped its investment plus another $500 million and counting.

Lightfoot inherited the infamous parking meter deal. But as mayor-elect, she said she’d take a look at the meter agreement signed by former Mayor Richard M. Daley, with the City Council’s approval, saying as mayor she would try to improve the deal for Chicagoans.

In the three-plus years since then, however, Lightfoot has not announced any changes to the contract with Chicago Parking Meters LLC. What’s more, 193 new areas where drivers have to pay to park have been added since the mayor took office, covering stretches of blocks in neighborhoods such as Kinsler’s, mostly around the North Side and in and around downtown.

A review of the street parking spaces that have been metered since 2019 shows some take up entire city blocks while others are just a handful of spaces.

Last year, for instance, Lightfoot added a parking zone that was more than a full block near the site of the former Cabrini-Green housing complex, while also adding a pay box in July 2021 for just a couple of parking spots next to a gas station on Southport Avenue south of Diversey Avenue.

In 2019, the city added 17 new areas where drivers had to pay to park. The administration said 10 of those were in the works of being added before Lightfoot became mayor. That year, the city collected only $14,000 in revenue from those 17 areas. As more new spaces were added in 2020, the city collected $640,000 in revenue from the metered spots added since Lightfoot took office, city records show. In 2021, the Lightfoot-era pay boxes brought in $5.44 million, according to the city, even though 47 of the ones added that year weren’t even on-line for the full year, having been activated between July 1 and Dec. 3.

And so far in 2022, the city said, the parking meters installed since Lightfoot took office have generated $8.5 million.

The 2021 haul from drivers was part of an overall total last year of $136 million in meter revenue collected by Chicago Parking Meters LLC, according to an annual audit by accounting firm KPMG.

The 2021 take was a significant increase over the $91.6 million in meter revenue in 2020, as Chicago recovered from the pandemic.

Lightfoot drew attention in her 2021 budget for adding 96 of the pay boxes covering about 750 spots, some of them around Montrose Harbor.

Finance Department spokeswoman Rose Tibayan said the money raised by the new meters does not represent an additional tax burden on Chicagoans because the city will use it to make contractual payments to Chicago Parking Meters LLC for the cost of parking spots taken out of service for festivals, street repairs and other reasons.

Those so-called true-up payments have long been a source of conflict between the city and the meter company, and one of the few parts of the long-term contract mayors in the past several years have identified as costs they can fight in order to show residents they’re at least trying to improve the situation.

“Putting new meters allows the city to free up corporate fund dollars to pay for essential city services like police, fire, and others,” Tibayan said in an emailed statement.

But the city could always try to find $10 million in savings in its $16.7 billion budget to pay the true-up, rather than installing meters at more spots.

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“What are they doing with the money they’re getting from us already?” Kinsler asked.

Kinsler’s frustration mirrors complaints that have been lodged against the city since the day the deal was officially struck. Not only has Chicago Parking Meters gotten its one-time payment back with six decades to go, mayors, including Lightfoot, have had very little wiggle room to make substantive changes to the pact.

When he succeeded Daley, Mayor Rahm Emanuel spent years trying to find ways to unravel it.

In the end, Emanuel settled for fighting the true-up payments, initiating a pay-by-cellphone system and allowing free Sunday parking at many of the 36,000 metered spaces around the city in exchange for longer paid parking hours the rest of the week.

In addition to the parking meters, Daley also leased the Chicago Skyway for $1.82 billion for 99 years, and leased downtown parking garages near Millennium Park and Grant Park, financial arrangements that, while providing the city with an upfront infusion of cash, have aged badly.

The parking meter deal’s prominent place in the firmament of Chicago government failures became apparent again recently.

Critics of how quickly Lightfoot moved to finalize an agreement to allow Bally’s to build a casino in River West invoked Daley’s speedy City Council vote on the lease in urging her to slow down and get more feedback.

Paul Vallas, a former budget director and head of Chicago Public Schools under Daley who’s running a second time for mayor, tried to tie Lightfoot to “the ignominious specter of the infamous parking meter deal” in an op-ed urging caution in the casino decision.

And downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, said the casino process was “actually worse than the process for the parking meter deal.”


Twitter @_johnbyrne