Should Toronto finally do away with cheap parking rates?: Keenan

Transit, social housing are city hall’s proclaimed priorities. Yet cheap and plentiful parking is the practice.

Toronto Parking Authority hiked some rates this fall but the agency still prices parking spots well below what private parking lot competitors often charge.

Richard Lautens / Torstar News Service

Toronto Parking Authority hiked some rates this fall but the agency still prices parking spots well below what private parking lot competitors often charge.

To what extent should the City of Toronto government subsidize parking? Should it even do so at all? Given all the competing priorities for municipal money and attention — social housing, poverty, transit, and on down the familiar list — is cheap and plentiful space to warehouse private cars really something the city should treat as a social service?

As our politicians enter the annual budget season, we’re (as usual) likely to hear a lot about the pressing demands from all sides for scarce government dollars.

The mandate of the Toronto Parking Authority to provide ample parking spots in the city— and the practice of that agency to provide them below market rates— is a topic worth revisiting.

And indeed, City Manager Peter Wallace brought it up in a speech to the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance last week.

“I’m not at all comfortable with a user-fee model that in practical terms, prices the TTC almost up to the margin, so that if we raise transit fares, we might well see a reduction in ridership,” the city’s top bureaucrat said during his presentation, while discussing “adequate, fair, and efficient revenue” as part of a broader ranging discussion of the city’s finances.

“I’m now chair of the Toronto Parking Authority, I can tell you that we price parking below market,” he said. Wallace has been serving as chair of the TPA board after council disbanded it this summer following an auditor’s report into a questionable attempted land purchase.

Wallace, quite reasonably, pointed at the difference between transit and parking pricing strategies as an example of talk not matching action in city policies. “Our official policies are to encourage transit use over vehicle use — for congestion management, for GHGs, for safety, all of those really incredibly important services — and yet our pricing model for public goods is actually the reverse of that.”

Indeed, despite a much-publicized hike in some rates this fall, parking authority policy still prices parking spots well below what private parking lot competitors often do.

Even in reporting on those recent price increases, media outlets reported TPA staff saying rates would still be “at or below” those of privately-owned parking lots. Traditionally, Green P lots have pursued an explicit policy of setting rates at 75 per cent of any nearby competitors.

A recent stroll around the St. Lawrence Market showed how this works in practice: the Green P lot just south of The Esplanade charges a weekday rate equivalent to $5 per hour. A Unit Park surface lot right next door to the north charges $9 per hour, while a Canada Auto Parks garage across the street to the east charges $6 per hour.

On weekends, when shoppers flood the St. Lawrence Market from around the city, the Green P lot offers $1 per hour parking for up to two hours, while the competitor lots charge $6 per hour (Unit Park) or an $8 flat rate (Canada Auto Parks), respectively.

You could ask why, when so many competitors already exist offering parking, the city even needs to be there competing with them. (KPMG, back in the Rob Ford years, suggested privatizing the TPA, though that suggestion went nowhere.)

But many people respond — much as they do when asked why in heck the province should operate a retail liquor monopoly — that whatever the reason for the government getting into the business in the first place, the organization is now a cash cow producing needed revenue. But if that’s the primary justification for its continued existence, it ought to maximize that revenue by charging market prices.

This seems especially true since the province vetoed the city’s plan to charge tolls on some roads.

If you can’t price automobile use in the city with tolls — as a source of revenue and as a way to fight congestion and encourage use of transit and cycling — then you can price it to a great extent through parking prices.

And I think it’s also worth revisiting whether we should keep spending tens of millions of dollar every year buying up and building more parking lots.

In 2016, the Toronto Board of Trade produced a report suggesting that the $300 million over 10 years the Toronto Parking Authority has already set aside for expansion should be rerouted into building transit. At the time, I wrote it was a sound idea, and it seems all the more so now that one of those new lot acquisitions turned into such a source of scandal.

Even in the absence of headline-grabbing oddities in planned purchases, spending $30 million per year on new, below-market-rate parking lots seems scandalous in a city where we’re closing social housing for lack of funds.

Transit, housing — these are our proclaimed priorities. Yet cheap and plentiful parking is our practice. “That’s an important dialogue we need to start,” Wallace said in his speech, about the disconnect between how we price transit and how we price parking.

I agree, it’s past time to start. No time like the present.

Edward Keenan writes on city issues Follow: @thekeenanwire

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