Parking meter proposal hit from the right and the left

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By Steven T. Jones
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The politics of parking in San Francisco has always been intensively visceral, particularly among those who assert a right to park their cars on public property at little or no cost (and who often have a hard time finding a spot). So yesterday’s San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency hearing on its proposal to extend parking meter hours was bound to get heated.

MTA chief Nat Ford anticipated the high emotions to come when he said in his introductory remarks, “It’s not easy to find parking in San Francisco, and it’s not easy to talk about parking in San Francisco…We know this study is creating a lot of discussion and feedback from elected officials and the general public.”

And just as predicted, representatives from the business community, landlords, westside residents, and other conservative interests decried the parking proposal as an unfair tax on motorists and an unnecessary intrusion of government do-gooders.

But the real surprise of the hearing was the angry opposition from a handful of leftists – self-described socialists, poor students, and other young members of the anti-war ANSWER Coalition – who blasted the proposal as a tax on working class motorists and called for the city to tax the rich and big corporations instead.

“The working class is being driven out and I hope this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” said ANSWER’s Forest Schmidt. “Someone else needs to pay for the budget deficit that giant corporations created.”

Fellow ANSWER member Frank Landa, who said he was also representing the Party for Socialism and Liberation, said, “Government and corporate institutions cannot keep justifying the robbery of workers’ wages.”

ANSWER’s Tina Landis said, “The hikes are just another attack on the people,” while Michelle Schudel said of her group, “Students Fight Back is against parking meter hikes because it’s a regressive tax…Like the common people of Oakland, we will continue to speak out against these hikes until we win.”

Progressives and urban planning activists who supported the proposal were surprised at ANSWER’s approach, and many responded angrily that these activists – who weren’t involved in actively opposing the MTA’s doubling of Muni fares in recent years – were suddenly opposing a measure to get millions of dollars from drivers as a means of preventing more service cuts and fare hikes for Muni, whose riders are far more often working class than are motorists.

“I wonder if the ANSWER Coalition is embarrassed to be in bed with landlords and the Chamber of Commerce,” progressive activist Fran Taylor said at the hearing, later adding, “The real working class and the real poor are on the bus and we need this.”

What the leftist critics of the proposal didn’t seem to understand was that the SFMTA has just two constituencies under its purview: drivers and public transit users. It can’t levy taxes on big corporations or wealthy individuals, and if the money to close the deficit doesn’t come from drivers, then it will come from Muni.

“People said we should tax the corporations, but I think it’s important to understand what authority this body has,” MTA chair Tom Nolan said after public testimony. “We have to find the revenue somewhere.”

Yet that kind of zero sum game – which is largely a product of longtime conservative opposition to new general revenue sources, such as taxes on the rich -- is clearly frustrating to San Francisco residents of all political stripes. Rich and poor, left and right, the speakers expressed utter exasperation with being nickel and dimed by government.

That’s understandable, but what’s less understandable was the mixed messages from opponents to the proposal who equated parking with a right and user fees with a tax – and who complained about the lack of parking in the city while blasting a proposal designed to create more of it.

“The whole reason behind this is to increase the availability of parking,” said SFMTA financial officer Sonali Bose, who reasonably and methodically laid out how they took a detailed, data-based approach to proposing new meter hours, how other comparable cities have extended meter hours with no detrimental effect (even the Port of San Francisco quietly pushed its meter hours back to 11 pm earlier this year), and how the proposal would benefit businesses and drivers while helping the SFMTA’s desperate budget situation.

Yet in the end, it didn’t matter. Opponents grumbled loudly as she spoke, and then they testified about how drivers would have to constantly plug parking meters (even though the proposal calls for four-hour time periods and easier payment methods), how businesses would suffer (even though there would be more street parking spots available close to them, and despite studies showing drivers spend less at each business than those who visit by other modes), and how unfair it is to deny drivers the free public parking to which they’ve grown accustomed.

But Ford seemed unbowed by the criticism and said that the agency will, as planned, do aggressive community outreach in the coming months (particularly to businesses), address perceived shortcomings in the study, and try to find consensus around increasing parking meter revenue: “I’d like to get everyone together on some kind of proposal.”