Parking costs a tired way of balancing Muni budget

No one is quite sure when it happened, but at some juncture in the past decade, transportation planners and officials in San Francisco started viewing cars not as transit vehicles but as roving cash machines.

Along the way, they developed strategies for seizing deposits at every stop, whether it was the sidewalk curb outside your home or the once-meter-free area near your workplace.

And then they got even greedier, flirting with ways to cash in on the commuter experience by tinkering with ideas such as congestion pricing, whereby the path you drive on to pick up your kids and go to the store is transformed into a toll road.

But the concept of punishing people for the temerity of owning cars in San Francisco may be coming to an end. Well, not entirely, but at least some brakes are being applied.

In case you missed it, the brain teasers at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency decided yet again to target motorists to offset the department’s chronic annual budget deficit with a host of new pay-to-park initiatives such as paid Sunday parking meters, charging businesses more to reserve parking spaces and imposing parking lot fees at supermarkets and banks.

Think of it as a kind of “gouge and go” philosophy to get city transportation planners off the hook for their bosses’ inability to run their own department efficiently.

I have spent more than a decade decrying the ridiculous campaign to target motorists for the “privilege” of operating a car in San Francisco, yet all my shouting has only seen the price for said ownership increase. I was at least able to encourage former Mayor Gavin Newsom to oppose Sunday meters, though I couldn’t get him to balk at The SFMTA’s plan to add another 5,000 parking meters last year on heretofore uncluttered sidewalk space.

But complaints about the ridiculous cost of parking tickets and the fees for a towed vehicle have gotten so out of hand, at least two people who have a say in the matter have decided that enough is enough — the days of the four-wheel ATM program are over.

At least we hope so — don’t stop carrying quarters based on a dream.

Mayor Ed Lee told me last week that the recent plan to raise fees, add new parking meters and start charging for free parking spaces has grown as old as a vintage Muni car. So for at least a little while, don’t expect a price hike.

The plan to add meters, raise parking-ticket fees and otherwise dust off the costly chestnuts SFMTA officials carry out each year to cover their losses, “are quite frankly, a little disappointing to me and Ed [Reiskin, Muni’s new chief],” Lee told me.

“We’ve got to get better answers and a long-term solution,” he said. “These are old, rehashed ideas. We’ve got to find a better way.”

And hope that all of the new techies being brought into The City under the mayor’s job-incentive plan are clicking their way to creativity. Lee said his goal is to hold citywide “hackathons” for the new startups coming to San Francisco as a way to generate new answers to the time-honored question of how to feed Muni’s incessant budget appetite.

He said things like a proposed new “tow app” for smartphones are a good start, even if that gives an upper hand to people dumb enough to block other people’s driveways. Still, it can’t hurt to have a fresh set of eyes looking at the transit agency’s revenue problem, since we know where it looks all the time.

Certainly we understand that we can’t bike our way around the problem because it’s not a practical solution, and the idea that we’re going to start charging people for the unalienable right to park in a Whole Foods parking lot won’t get beyond the checkout stand.

Apparently raising fees for Muni service is one item still on the table, but it comes shortly after several supervisors suggested providing free rides to students — a $4 million giveaway.

Of course, many of those same supervisors recently were recipients of up to $4.6 million in public campaign financing for mayor, so unlike the meters, maybe the giveaway program hasn’t expired yet.

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