City mulls $5B meter sell-off

It turns out that New York City's streets actually are paved with gold -- its tens of thousands of parking meters could be worth $5 billion or more if privatized.
City officials are looking at how other cash-strapped municipalities have already auctioned off the long-term rights to their meters for hundreds of millions of dollars -- and say the move could work for the Apple.

Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith -- assigned by Mayor Bloomberg to find innovative ways to cut spending and increase revenues -- liked the idea enough to bring it up at a city Department of Transportation meeting.

Officials confirmed that the proposal had been discussed. Still, they added that it's not likely to be acted on in the immediate future, given that such a one-shot sell-off of such a revenue generator is out of line with Bloomberg's pledge not to saddle future generations with debts.

"We're always looking at different opportunities for new good ideas," said mayoral spokesman Marc LaVorgna. "But it's not something we're pursuing right now."

Still, if the city's fiscal situation gets desperate enough, the plan could shift quickly to cashing in on the meters.

New York City's meters produced $138.9 million for the city treasury last year and provided jobs to 125 Department of Transportation employees who repair and maintain them.

By some estimates, the city's 50,402 single-space meters and 4,834 Muni Meters could command at least $5 billion if sold to a private firm to run.

Goldsmith was enthusiastic about the idea even before he took office.

"This isn't rocket science," he wrote in Governing magazine in January, six months before he joined the administration. "Most citizens couldn't care less who takes the coins out of their parking meters."

Chicago became the first city in the nation to privatize its meters in December 2008, but not without controversy.

For an upfront payment of $1.15 billion, Mayor Richard Daley gave up revenues from 36,000 downtown meters for 75 years. He also gave up the hefty maintenance bill for the meters.

Critics denounced the deal as a giveaway, especially after the proceeds were used to prop up Chicago's budget that year instead of being invested in long-term capital projects or a rainy-day fund.

"Oh, no!" Chicago Alderman Scott Wauguespack exclaimed after being told that New York officials were studying what his city had done.

"It filled the budget gap for one year," he said. "Now, we've lost our revenue stream for the next 70 or so years."

Parking rates in some Chicago neighborhoods quadrupled as part of the agreement with a private investor group led by Morgan Stanley.

The highest rate increase was in the section of Chicago known as the Loop, where the rate jumped 75 cents in January, to $4.25 an hour.

Last week, Pittsburgh followed Chicago's example and sold a 50-year lease on its parking meters for $452 million. The money will go to shore up its pension funds.

Indianapolis -- which Goldsmith once headed as mayor -- and Los Angeles are examining similar moves.
city of New York
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