Tuesday, August 31, 2010
By Brian O'Neill, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl suggests leasing out the city's parking garages
and meters, but why stop there?
Dan Sullivan, one of my favorite civic gadflies, is set to make a
modest proposal to City Council, perhaps as early as today: Lease the
elevators in the City-County Building for the next 50 years.
"We will relieve taxpayers of paying for elevator maintenance by
putting the charge on the elevator users directly," Mr. Sullivan says.
"We will charge only 5 cents the first year, and raise the price over
five years to 25 cents - per floor."
(I've learned over the years that this is the point in the column where
I need to issue the SATIRE ALERT. In a world where governments are
leasing everything from parking meters to highways, it's not always
clear when somebody is kidding.)
Mr. Sullivan, 60, of Oakland, believes that politicians and junkies
have a lot in common:
"They're always looking for a new vein to stick, but the blood comes
out of the same person."
So it is probably with some trepidation that he makes this pitch, but
he argues, "Private companies are more efficient than government,
especially when we have licensed monopolies and no competition."
That is why he believes there need to be "standard protections" in his
elevator lease deal, similar to those the mayor is pushing in his
auction of the city's parking garages and meters.
The mayor believes the city can net more than $200 million in this
Parkapalooza: It leases its parking garages for the next half-century,
and establishes "a no-compete zone" Downtown wherein the private
operator must be compensated if the city makes structural changes that
cut into parking revenue.
Similarly, under Mr. Sullivan's elevator proposal, no offices could be
moved out of the City-County Building, no public hearings could be
moved and no one could use the stairs, without compensating the company
leasing the elevators.
"It's just part of the standard privatization contract," Mr. Sullivan
He intends to argue before council - which is far from sure to approve
the mayor's plan - that his proposal goes hand-in-glove with leasing
the parking garages.
Commuters aren't going to take the new, higher parking rates well, Mr.
"Once people realize what has happened, anything that discourages them
from coming [to complain to city officials] will be welcomed," he said.
"Being gouged by a private parking monopoly will keep them out of the
Golden Triangle, and being gouged by me will keep the complainers out
of [council] chambers.
"It's a win-win."
I chided Mr. Sullivan because in the early 1990s he seemed to be
working the other side of the street, saying city authorities had
gotten too far into the private sector. "Perestroika in reverse," he
called it then, noting that city authorities were parking cars, hosting
conventions, managing sports stadiums, developing real estate and
acting as a slum landlord. He joked that soon there would be a
Pittsburgh Pizza Authority, with city pizza shops having an unfair
advantage because they'd pay no property taxes.
Had he changed his mind?
No, he said. He'd have no fear of the city's plan to sell the garages
if they were sold individually. Then there would be real competition.
It's a licensed monopoly that he fears.
"If there's going to be a monopoly, better it be a government
monopoly," he said.
Yeah, but corporations pay top dollar only when they're betting on a
sure thing. Right now, seven pre-qualified bidders have until Sept. 15
to submit bids to the city on how much they'll pay to lease the city's
parking garages and meters for the next 50 years.
The mayor intends to use that money to shore up the pension system,
which is only about 28 percent funded, and keep the state from taking
If that happens and, in a few years, the city still finds itself a
little short, you might want to bring some quarters on any trip to the
City-County Building. The cost of going up may be going up.