City should stop being a holiday parking grinch

This newspaper has no argument with the unpleasant truth that because San Francisco — like just about anywhere else in the civilized world — is faced with a seemingly endless procession of deficit-burdened annual budgets, ugly revenue grabs are likely to happen. Politicians at all government levels have a protective reflex to seek fees and taxes instead of imposing unpopular but necessary service cuts.

However, San Francisco earns much of its income by being a place where people find it enjoyable to come and spend time. So collecting revenue (no matter how badly needed) by stealthily ending the traditional free street parking for most holidays seems to be cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Unexpected fines of $65 for parking at city meters on eight holidays — including the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Memorial Day and Veterans Day — are hardly likely to entice repeat visitors back to San Francisco for their holiday shopping, dining or show-going. But that is exactly what the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency started doing in 2010.

The only three holidays when motorists can still park for free in The City are Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. And those are holidays when many people historically are less likely to leave their homes for an automotive jaunt.

The sudden SFMTA change to holiday parking fees still comes as a surprise to much, or most, of the public and this has proven very lucrative to our city’s transit-traffic-parking authority. On each of the four holidays when fees are charged, the SFMTA collects an average of $181,125 inparking meter citation revenue. That is 72 percent higher than the $105,474 daily average earned on normal days.

Like most public transit, the SFMTA’s Muni consistently runs at a substantial fiscal loss. The agency is hardly likely to give up its self-authorized holiday parking bonanza without a fierce struggle. The SFMTA has collected $2.9 million in total holiday parking revenues — $1.2 million from properly fed meters and $1.7 million in violation penalties.

Predictably, the agency has a justification for adding first-time-ever holiday parking fees. It claims most businesses now stay open on those holidays, so enforced parking turnover in business neighborhoods actually helps the local economy. This claim is debatable at best. According to the SFMTA’s own figures, meters are occupied 64 percent of the time during regular business days, but holiday occupancy rates drop to 54 percent.

Some civic leaders have begun questioning the entire concept of holiday parking fees in a city economy that depends heavily on the spending of visitors and tourists. SFMTA board member Jerry Lee told fellow directors it is unfair to ticket cars at times when downtown districts resemble a “ghost town.”

San Francisco Chamber of Commerce Public Policy Director Jim Lazarus said, “Fooling drivers into thinking that meters are not being enforced because it’s the Fourth of July is wrong. Holidays are supposed to be excluded from meter enforcement.”

The San Francisco Examiner could not agree more with Lazarus and Lee. Holiday parking fees are a bad idea for The City. They are not worth the visitor enmity they create and should be phased out by the SFMTA as quickly as is feasible.

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