Facing heat on parking meter deal, Emanuel allies step up

Facing heat from aldermen who want to break apart Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new deal with the company running the city’s parking meters, the mayor’s City Council allies took the unusual step Thursday of trumpeting support, but only for part of the proposal.

The Emanuel administration acknowledged working with the aldermen to make the announcement. Two dozen aldermen, all but four of whom consistently back the mayor, endorsed free Sunday parking at 81 percent of the city’s 36,000 metered spaces in exchange for extending the hours at more than two-thirds of the spaces during the rest of the week.

Emanuel has touted that swap, along with a pay-by-cell option, as a big victory for the neighborhoods and consumers.

But several aldermen, led by Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, whose downtown ward would be hit hardest by the extended hours, have questioned whether the swap is a hidden windfall for Chicago Parking Meters LLC.

The mayor has insisted the free Sunday parking swap and pay-by-cell option should not be peeled off from a settlement that cut by $40 million what the city owes the company for meters out of service the past two years. The settlement set a pattern that the mayor contends will save the city $20 million annually over the remaining 71 years of the much-reviled meter lease to the meter company.

Although Emanuel on Wednesday did not directly answer questions about whether his proposed settlement was financially linked to free Sundays, time extensions and 35-cent-per-transaction pay-be-cell program, Strand said the meter hour changes and 35-cent fees “will not in any way compensate (the meter company) for the loss of $20 million annually.”

Aldermen, however, are skeptical and reluctant to sign off on all aspects of the deal while “not really knowing full well that that isn’t going to represent a lot more money for the meter company or future headaches down the road,” Reilly said.

Reilly says that if the aldermen were given the option of just approving the settlement, along with an acceptable version of pay-by-cell, “this would receive 50 votes, no questions asked, and I think would be a tremendous victory, in and of itself, for Mayor Emanuel.”

Ald. Patrick O’Connor, 40th, the mayor’s floor leader, said the council cannot unilaterally decide to break apart the deal. Reilly acknowledged that, saying it would require further negotiation.

But while O’Connor said that splitting up the parts could kill the entire deal, Reilly said that if the administration is being square that there’s no financial linkage, it shouldn’t be a problem.

When Emanuel was asked Wednesday if no free Sundays and longer hours in downtown areas would kill the deal, he replied: “I don’t think the deal would die. But the point is that free Sundays would not be available for the residents for the next 71 years.”

Ald. Ameya Pawar, 47th, told the Tribune editorial board on Thursday that he and other aldermen need far more information about the aspects of the deal not related to the settlement.

“My question is: ‘Are they making additional dollars? Is this revenue neutral for CPM or are they making money?’” Pawar said. “Because if they’re making money, it looks like to me that we have simply shifted the burden to the consumer and created a system where they’re going to make more money over time.”

Pawar said if the savings negotiated for the city is on the backs of increased parking hours for drivers, “let’s just be honest about that, because if it isn’t, why are we tweaking hours and providing free Sundays if no one is complaining? Why can’t we take that piece out?”

hdardick@tribune.com
bruthhart@tribune.com
Twitter @ReporterHal