The city of Portland is facing a budgetary shortfall of over 10% just to maintain funding for existing services. Without state assistance, the City Council faces tough choices about raising property taxes and cutting city services. At Monday night’s special council meeting, the council postponed difficult budgetary decisions until next month but was prepared to vote on one order without any discussion of its financial impacts at all.

This was the order to permanently set aside 22 downtown street parking spaces on Thames and Hancock streets, in the immediate vicinity of the ferry terminal. The council’s vote in favor of the order means that these spaces will be designated as the Island Residential Parking Zone, allowing those with island resident parking permits to store their cars downtown for no cost and with no hourly time limits.

Multiple callers (myself included) gave public comments opposing the order. What each of the callers pointed out – and what councilors and city staff have failed to fully reckon with – is that assigning these valuable downtown street spaces permanently to the Island Residential Parking Zone is a substantial loss of potential revenue to the city.

According to data from a 2017 parking study by the city of Portland, downtown metered parking spaces are occupied for a minimum of 63% of the nine hours per day they are metered, and average utilization is even higher. If we estimate there are 300 metered days per year, a conservative estimate of annual parking revenue from the 22 spaces in question would be $102,910.50 per year.

Given a hypothetical $100,000 of additional annual revenue, could the city provide a benefit greater than free parking to 22 car owners? Could that benefit be distributed among our city’s residents more equitably than to only 22 car owners? Are there city services more essential than free parking that we might fund with an additional $100,000 per year? Would the city have paid outright for these parking spaces if they would be billed $4,677 a year per space? That’s more than twice the rate that the ferry terminal garage charges to its monthly parking pass holders. Instead of asking these questions, the City Council chose to allocate this valuable city-owned asset to 22 car owners for free.

In response to public comment, John Peverada, the city’s parking division director, dismissed the idea that these spaces should generate revenue. “We’re not really supposed to be here for the money that it generates,” he said. “It’s to provide the service.” But the money that parking generates for the city – $3.6 million in 2022 from parking meters alone – in turn goes toward paying for a litany of other city services.

Providing free parking at a cost of $4,677 a year per space is a choice about the policy priorities of our city. Likewise, spending just $44 a year per resident on transit ($3,020,147 in 2022) is also a policy choice. With this level of subsidy to drivers and corresponding underinvestment in transit, is it any wonder that almost everyone in the city who is able chooses to drive, and as a result squabbles over parking availability at every opportunity?

We know that people rely on their cars and struggle to find parking in Portland because there are so few transit alternatives to driving. We also know that our transit system has not been able to expand to offer these needed alternatives because of budgetary constraints. But the missing link in this chain of causality is the fact that the city’s budget is constrained because we aren’t prudently managing the city resources that reliably generate the most revenue.

Not all city-owned land needs to generate revenue, nor should it. But when we decide to hand out free parking in the densest part of our city and forfeit that potential revenue, we need to be aware of what we are sacrificing.

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