The parking fee's too low

City streets are being rented out for a pittance

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EDITORIAL The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is reviewing its policy on neighborhood parking, which is a positive step: The current system has been in place for more than 30 years and has become an unwieldy mess. But the agency needs to do more than just aggregate districts and set uniform rules; it needs to adjust the concept of preferential parking, meters, and prices to reflect the reality that San Francisco can't afford (and shouldn't promote) free parking.

Since 1976, the city has issued permits allowing residents of certain neighborhoods to park for as long as 72 hours on streets that otherwise offer only two-hour parking. The idea was to keep out-of-town commuters from parking near, say, a BART line and leaving their cars all day. The zones also protect neighborhood privileges near busy shopping districts and employment centers.

The zones are designated only when a majority of property owners request it. The fees for the permits are set at $104 a year.

The Examiner reported Aug. 13 that the system is in line for "a major overhaul." And the first thing the MTA needs to do is look at the price.

Renting a garage in most city neighborhoods runs close to $300 a month. Paid parking in even outlying areas can be as much as $10 a day. A Muni fast pass costs $74 a month.

But the neighborhood parking permits in effect give a piece of the city's streets — public property — to some residents for $8.60 a month, or about 28 cents a day. At a time when Muni can't afford to keep its buses rolling, that's ridiculous.

Easy, cheap on-street parking encourages more residents to buy cars, which is in direct contrast to official city policy. It's true that the permits also allow people to leave their cars behind and take transit to work — but the cost is so low that the rest of the city's residents, particularly the lower-income people who pay for Muni rides, are subsidizing car owners.

If the MTA could double the annual fee, it would bring in an additional $6.5 million a year, which could be dedicated to improving Muni. And at $208 a year, the permits would still be an phenomenal bargain. Car owners have been saving money for years (at great cost to the state) from the Schwarzenegger-era reduction in the Vehicle License Fee; paying some of that money back to the city wouldn't exactly be a brutal hardship.

It's not easy — the state mandates that local fees be set at the cost of administering the program. But if nothing else, the MTA ought to ask Sacramento for an exemption — and look for creative ways to link subsidized parking to supporting Muni. (Maybe the parking zones get all-day meters that residents can pay for in advance. Maybe create a parking benefit district. There are so many ways around this.)

The MTA screwed up badly the last time it tried to change neighborhood parking rules (in that case, meters), and any new rules will require extensive community outreach. But everyone needs to understand that free on-street parking in a crowded city with far too many cars is not some god-given right. The neighborhood parking program has a lot of benefits and we agree that it helps discourage car commuters from clogging residential streets. But the people who benefit from it ought to pay a fair fee.