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Why is parking so expensive in Pittsburgh? 

Question submitted by: Rich Saporito

We city-dwellers don't like to think of parking as expensive; we prefer to think of our suburbanites as cheap.

Parking in town is costly because one-third of what you pay goes into the city's coffers. Pittsburgh's 50 percent parking tax is "the highest rate in the nation," proclaims the most recent annual report of the Pittsburgh Parking Authority, which operates eight Downtown garages. (Nevertheless, the authority bills itself as the "Value Parking Network." I trust that makes you feel better about shelling out $14 a day.)

The tax wasn't always so high: Prior to a hike in February 2004, the rate was a "mere" 31 percent. That was the nation's highest even then, but we Pittsburghers are driven to excel.

Besides, city government was in dire financial straits, and the increase helped balance the books: City budget documents show that prior to the increase, the parking levy brought in just under $31 million. After the increase, parking-tax proceeds jumped to $44.5 million. Today, taxes on parking provide the city with more money than taxing the wages of city residents.

It seems weird that our driving habits could be more lucrative than our working habits (though it also means you can spend your workday on YouTube with a clean conscience). It's equally strange to think that we're paying a higher parking tax than they do in, say, Philadelphia.

Then again, although Philly doesn't tax parking as heavily, it does get more of the income of the guy behind the wheel.

Philadelphia and other cities levy a "commuter tax" on the wages of suburbanites who work inside city limits. Pittsburgh sought a similar tax, under the theory that we, like Philadelphia, host a disproportionate number of nonprofit organizations like hospitals, universities and government agencies. Such institutions benefit the whole region, the theory goes, but pay little in the way of local taxes.

There's something to be said for this argument. Nearly 75,000 Pittsburgh workers -- nearly one-quarter of the city workforce -- are employed by a nonprofit. That's a lot of people whose offices don't generate any property tax. We'd be better off if they set up shop in parking lots, like stalls in a neighborhood farmer's market.

But the state legislature wasn't interested in taxing commuters here. Then-mayor Tom Murphy, Republican legislators pointed out, had already begged the state for money to build new development projects, including two new stadiums he said would shore up city finances. That didn't happen, obviously. In fact, Murphy was blaming his problems on the very suburbanites his projects were designed to attract.

So when city officials couldn't get the new tax they wanted, they raised the taxes they already had. It wasn't a perfect solution for taxing commuters: City residents pay for parking too, while bus riders from Mount Lebanon get off easy. Downtown property and business owners, meanwhile, worried that the hike would drive away business

Until now, the effect has been muted. A look at Parking Authority financial data shows that revenues were relatively stable between 2004 and 2005, and Downtown garages still fill up on weekdays. As long as people are bitching about how hard it is to find parking Downtown, one could argue, all is right in the world.

Critics argue that the tax hike is beginning to have an effect, however. Last month, the conservative Allegheny Institute on Public Policy released a report bemoaning an increasing rate of vacant office space Downtown. At a time when commercial real-estate markets in other cities are picking up steam, the report says, vacancies in Pittsburgh have increased: One out of every 5 square feet of Downtown office space is vacant.

"[T]he very high parking tax ... has undoubtedly caused firms to leave or consider leaving for the suburbs where parking is plentiful and free," says the Institute.

Under a state bailout plan, the city is required to reduce its parking tax by 5 percentage points next year. That's the first step in a series of reductions that will leave taxes at 35 percent in 2010 -- slightly worse off than we were three years ago, when this whole thing started.

If that doesn't make you feel any better, feel free to spend the afternoon Googling images of Sienna Miller or whatever: As long as you're parked in a city lot, we don't mind at all.

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