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Five months ago the city’s largest bicycling and transit advocacy group released a report ripping the Daley administration for entering into the parking meter privatization agreement. Yet Monday night the Active Transportation Alliance inducted Mayor Daley into its “hall of fame,” and the group will soon release a new version of the report—screened beforehand by city officials—that will recant many of the criticisms it made in June.
"We made some key mistakes in how we analyzed the agreement" the first time, says Rob Sadowsky, the group’s executive director. "But it gave us an opportunity to step back and have a dialogue with the city."
Daley, Sadowsky adds, has always been one of the group’s "partners" in developing policies and building infrastructure to promote bicycling, walking, and transit. “I’d put our mayor up against anyone.”
We didn’t hear that kind of love emanating from the alliance over the summer, when it released "Unrealized Assets: How leasing control of parking meters limits the future of active transport and innovative urban planning." The report pretty much said what its title suggests: that by privatizing operations of the meter system the city severely reduced its flexibility in setting traffic policy.
The report noted that while the city technically retains the right to remove or change the location, hours, or rates of any metered space in the city, it must compensate the private operator, Chicago Parking Meters LLC, or add meters or meter hours in a comparable location elsewhere. "The City’s ability to use streets in fresh, people-centric ways is now dictated, controlled and limited by the arrangements and penalties within the parking meters lease," the report concluded.
City officials slammed the report, arguing that they’d always had to make up for lost revenue if they’d cut the number or hours of meters. But they couldn’t deny that such decisions were far more complicated and costly than before the privatization deal. "The agreement preserves aldermanic rights to change meter locations, rates, and hours of operation," budget department spokesman Pete Scales said. "However, any changes to the schedule may have an impact on revenues, and the city retains responsibility for that impact."
City officials also had harsh words for the transportation alliance, accusing it of failing to get the city’s input before releasing the study. Alliance leaders said they’d tried to contact the city but hadn’t received a response.
Once the report made headlines, though, the city was eager to talk. Sadowsky says city officials sat down with members of his organization, provided official details about the meter agreement, and made a convincing case that the city retained full control of traffic policy. So convincing that on July 10, a little more than two weeks after the report was released, Sadowsky wrote to two of Daley’s top aides. The city posted a PDF of it online.
"It was never our intention to embarrass the city," Sadowsky wrote. "On behalf of the Active Transportation Alliance, I would like to simply state that we should not have published this report. I am embarrassed that it not only contains factual errors, but that it also paints an incorrect interpretation of the lease’s overall goals." He promised to issue a new report that the alliance would "submit to the city for review."
Sadowsky says that second report is nearly done, but there isn’t much suspense about what it’s going to conclude. He now thinks the meter deal will actually help the city set traffic policy—the exact opposite finding of the original report—because Chicago Parking Meters is replacing traditional meters with pay boxes. “Not only are the options the same but there may be more options,” he says. “Now they can raise rates and do variable pricing because of those boxes.”
Sadowsky says he hopes administration officials will be on hand when the revised report is officially released.
The group’s brief pissing match with the city is obviously over. At the alliance's annual meeting Monday night, the mayor was honored as "the Ultimate Campaign Manager."
“Good friends sometimes disagree,” Sadowsky says. “It’s good to be able to be blunt and honest.”