Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Gold-Plated Spaces: Who thought that $4-an-hour parking was a good idea?

Illustration by Rich Hauck.

Years ago, “Saturday Night Live” aired a commercial parody for a fictional product it called “Bad Idea” designer jeans.

In the commercial, SNL actors traded a series of terrible ideas, meant to illustrate the brand name of the jeans.

Actor 1: “We ripped up the pipes, wiring, having everything completely redone.”

Actor 2: “You’re renting, right?”

Actor 1: “Yeah.”

Cut to a shot of the jeans logo: “Bad Idea.”

The Harrisburg version would go something like this:

Actor 1: “Let’s raise the city’s already outrageous street parking rates by one-third.”
Actor 2: Are you serious?”
Actor 1: “Yeah.”

Cut to a shot of the jeans logo: “Bad Idea.”

Terrible, horrible, truly awful idea.

Harrisburg’s parking system is underperforming financially—that’s no secret. It’s struggled to meet projections ever since the insolvent city government, back in 2013, agreed to lease it out for 40 years as part of its financial rescue plan.

I won’t drag you through the tortured details of that deal again, except to say that the parking system now is under the control of an Atlanta-based asset manager, which runs it on behalf of the actual bond issuers—the commonwealth and Dauphin County.

I’m not here to re-litigate that complicated agreement, which did help the city pay off some of its crippling debt load, giving it a chance to regain its financial footing following the reckless Reed-era spending spree.

However, I am going to criticize the ludicrous decision to take an already wildly expensive system and make it even more wildly expensive, so that street parking downtown now clocks in at $4 per hour ($2 in Midtown). Parking in downtown Harrisburg is now much more expensive than in far larger cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Bad, bad idea.

In part, the asset manager justified the huge price hike by stating that an increase was necessary to “provide sufficient cash flow to maintain expenses associated with the parking system.”

But will that indeed be the result? If you have slack demand at $3 per hour, will charging even more fix your problem? Park Harrisburg may have a monopoly on downtown parking, but customers have a second choice—to not come at all.

Let’s say, for instance, that you own an ice cream shop and have few customers willing to pay $5 a scoop. To stimulate demand, do you charge 33% more? No. You lower your price until customers perceive fair value and return.

This analogy is imperfect. Parking isn’t ice cream, even though the general principle still applies. In fact, I would say that parking is unique in a very special way.

If you own a scoop shop and stubbornly charge too much for your product, scaring off customers, you only hurt yourself. But, if you run a parking system and charge too much for your product, you hurt many other people—perhaps profoundly so.

Back in 2013, when the price of street parking downtown quadrupled under the new regimen, people were outraged. Pay $3 per hour? No way, they said.

And, in fact, people did stay away. Restaurateurs, shop owners and salons screamed loudly, as downtown streets, once bumper-to-bumper with parked cars, became barren virtually overnight. A few businesses even moved or closed, placing blame squarely on the high cost of parking.

And now the problem has been made yet worse, with the added insult that businesses were just beginning to regain their footing after the devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.

Harrisburg’s parking masters need to understand that parking doesn’t exist for parking’s sake. People don’t consume parking as an end in itself, but as a means to an end. It’s part of an ecosystem, a web of hyper-local economic interdependence.

The parking vendor is a middleman between the consumer and the business, offering a temporary service so that one can access the other. In a perfect world, this system is in balance, with the parking operator, the businesses and the consumer all mutually benefitting.

Instead, with parking at $4 per hour, we have an out-of-whack system with the middleman recklessly steering the ship. His objective is to maximize revenue, which is fine except when the price becomes so prohibitive that it destroys demand. That is the situation here.

In my opinion, if Park Harrisburg wanted to stimulate demand, it should have lowered its street-parking rate, not raised it. I understand that the system has expenses, as well as bonds to pay off, but choking off demand—and killing the businesses around it—isn’t going to help anyone.

Our parking system does not exist in a vacuum. It exists within an integrated economic community, in a center of commerce already struggling. Many businesses rely on the parking system for their very survival, and the downtown relies on it to remain viable as a destination.

That future is now in peril, as a key player in the system has become unmoored from the economic realities of downtown Harrisburg.

Lawrance Binda is co-publisher/editor-in-chief of TheBurg.

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