Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Midday Edition

Millions Of Dollars (Still) Parked In San Diego Parking Districts

Parking meters line University Ave. in Hillcrest, April 3, 2017.
Katie Schoolov
Parking meters line University Ave. in Hillcrest, April 3, 2017.
Millions Of Dollars (Still) Parked In San Diego Parking Districts
San Diego Parking Districts Stash Millions Of Dollars GUEST:Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS News

Every time you feed a parking meter in San Diego just half of what you pay stays in that neighborhood. The money is supposed to help improve parking and mobility. As KPBS Metro reporter Andrew Bowen explains there are some tight restrictions on how that money can be spent. What we have here is trash all over the sidewalk. We've got newspapers and wrapping papers with got an old sock and urine all over the ground. We see a Styrofoam food container with chicken bones and a used condom. Is wreckage and kind of smell it hereto. Depending on the way the wind blows you can smell it. Nichols heads the Hillcrest business Association He says it gets to the a confessed. Homeless people dig through the trashcan or go to the bathroom behind and adjacent electrical box. Said once he called MTS to see if he could clean it up He said contact the business Association. They will do it. He also manages the parking district. He wants to use some of that money for more frequent cleaning of the bus stop. He said that would make it more attractive and pleasant for people to take public transit into Hillcrest and for every person who rides the bus that is one less car taking up a parking space. There is a problem. Terms of deploying on the solutions they have come up with we have not been able to see that. The fact that there is $4 million built up over years and years and years demonstrates that the spaghetti sauce. We are unable to them this morning. $4 million are sitting in a bank account waiting to be spent on making it easier to get into and around the Hillcrest area. It's because state and local laws limit how they can spend their money. They are allowed to promote Viking public transit with the goal for reducing public parking. Will be the final bus stop actually do that. The attorney's office says it is a stretch. Another thing we should reconsider is our narrow interpretation of parking district expenditures. And urban planning works on issues of development and street design brought up parking districts during a presentation at a recent to the Council meeting. We should be able to have parking benefits districts that manage access to the places the parking is able to conserve cash serve. Manage lighting and sidewalks and support for these parking districts that we cannot do right now because our interpretation is very risk adverse and says it is just and replacing meters. I sat down to interview him. He acknowledges legal imitations if they allow the parking districts to spend however they want they can get sued. The parking districts are using some money to promote automated transportation. Still he says other cities governed by the same state laws are doing it better. You are able to find parking as easy as you were able to find a business or find where you are supposed to go. Has been the source of handling in San Diego for years ago they did a report on problems with them in late 2014. City Council even reformed the parking ordinance two years ago aiming to give district more spending flexibility. Nichols says the policy is still to car centric even in an era when San Diego is supposed to be cutting back on driving. San Diego as a region has doubled down on buses and bicycles so we should be able to deploy the money for things like making it enjoyable to ride the bus. They could issue a new memo with less restrictions. A spokesman says there are no plans to do that so any changes will likely have to come from the mayor and city Council. Joining me is Metro reporter Andrew Bowen. Is it any clear indication of how parking districts can and cannot use these parking fees There are legal memos for the city attorney's office and the other supporting document and of course regular communication. There are some things that are clearly legal like putting in a parking meter and other things that are absolutely not legal of the meter revenue can be used for landscaping and maintenance of the landscaping. Maybe in most cases no only under extraordinary circumstances so it gets really complicated bottom line is each project that they want to spend their money on is evaluated individually and there is often a push and pull between parking districts because they do not necessarily agree on what they can and cannot do. Sometimes they have to hire consultants that need to study an issue and make findings that present plan to these trees will to reduce the man -- demand for parking and I think there is a lot of pent up frustration. Parking district says it wants to use the money to clean up a bus stop in the city attorney's office says it will not release the funds. So parking districts come up with a budget of what they want to do some of them are clearly defined and other such as what we want to spend this much money and these many dollars on managing parking demand or increasing the parking supply or there's no specific project that that money is necessarily tied to. So you can keep this and can't do that. Ultimately the city Council is the one that approves the budget. San Francisco is a good example of using the parking district parking meter revenue. Have a citywide system for each spot has a sensor anything tell whether or not the car is there. You gather that data of where cars are parked in that time of day and adjust the price. Somebody can go online to the website and look at where parking meters are a dollar 25 an hour and they can choose to maybe walk five or six blocks as opposed to going where they want to put this to the city of Redwood City in the bay area is using way systems so they have a lot of electric light that show this parking garage in this direction has 200 spots. There are definitely innovative and legal ways to spend this money that is currently being deployed in San Diego. Is the money for the whole city of San Diego. Is correct that is just a town. Other districts I think it is also important to note that they are not having the same problems as a town which is the gentleman that I talk in that story and I think part of it comes with the size of 10 and the different opinions of what should be done with the money. Is a downtown collects millions more than uptown does and I have a lot more money that they can invest in the parking structure. The midcity parking district does not collect that much money. They collect just a fraction of it. They cannot even afford to consider building a parking garage. So they are focusing on projects and not necessarily enough to fill the parking garage so there is definitely a lot of disagreement and I think that's one of the problems what town in particular has a lot of unspent money. How long has that money been spent just sitting there. This has been going on for quite some time. The to the article in 2014 about funds that are going unspent. The city Council is taking a crack at of trying to fix this problem. Bottom line is that it's not just city Council that is in charge here there is always that govern the fees and how they can be spent and by nature they are afraid of getting sued so they want to protect from legal risks and that is why the. Relatively conservative approach to how they can spend the money. Is an updated plans are still to car centric. That is what I heard from Dan Nichols in uptown and I think that the frustration is just that according to the city attorney's office there has to be a line drawn between every dollar that you spend and a parking spot. As I mentioned you may have to hire a traffic engineer or consulting firm to study if I pick up this trash at the stock more often how many more people with that convince to ride the bus into Hillcrest as opposed to driving. You know that is an intangible thing that you may not necessarily be able to measure. Every single dollar that we spent has to be drawn directly back and paste with facts that will be upheld to a parking spot and it's very difficult severe. Thank you.

The bus stop at 5th Ave. and Evans Place in Hillcrest is, in a strange way, like an advertisement for cars. On a recent Monday morning, the bus stop bench was littered with newspapers, an old sock, chicken bones, food wrappers and a used condom. The trash, and the stench of urine, could easily convince a would-be bus rider to skip public transit and opt to drive.

“I can’t imagine anybody waiting at this bus stop,” said Ben Nicholls, president of the Hillcrest Business Association.

San Diego’s Parking Districts Awash In Unspent Money

The HBA pays for a monthly trash pick-up and power washing at the stop. But Nicholls said it gets dirty again fast, as homeless people dig through the trash can or go to the bathroom behind an adjacent electrical box.

Nicholls also chairs the board of the Uptown Community Parking District, which manages money collected through parking meters in and around Hillcrest. He would like to spend some of that money on more frequent cleaning of the bus stop — doing so, he said, would encourage more people to take public transit into Hillcrest, reducing the demand for parking.

But that spending, according to city officials, would run afoul of state and local laws that strictly regulate how parking meter dollars can be spent. The result of those regulations, Nicholls said, has been a steadily growing balance in the parking district’s bank account. Its budget for the coming fiscal year is nearly $4.7 million, most of which Nicholls predicts will go unspent.

“In terms of deploying all the creative solutions that the neighborhood has come up with, we haven’t been able to do that,” he said. “The spigot is off. We are unable to spend this money.”

Trash litters the side of a bus stop in Hillcrest, April 3, 2017.
Katie Schoolov
Trash litters the side of a bus stop in Hillcrest, April 3, 2017.

Fee vs. Tax

Most of the money collected by parking meters — 55 percent — goes to the city of San Diego’s general fund. The remainder stays in the community and is managed by the city’s parking districts.

The restrictions on their spending is due to the legal definition of the money drivers pay to park their cars at metered spots. State law classifies it as a fee, meaning the parking district must spend it only on things that alleviate the parking situation in that neighborhood. If it were classified as a tax, the districts would have far more discretion on how to spend their money — but changing that classification would require a public vote, and the approval of two-thirds of voters.

Guidelines for how to legally spend parking fee dollars in San Diego have been laid out in two legal memos from the City Attorney’s Office, written in 2010 and 2014. They address several hypothetical spending ideas, including enhancements to public transit stops.

“Whether any enhancement is necessary would likely require an objective study to analyze the impediments for ridership, whether aesthetic enhancements at a particular bus or trolley stop is required to address those concerns, and whether the enhancement would affect the parking of vehicles within a parking meter zone,” the 2010 memo reads.

In other words, Nicholls would have to prove the trash and urine smell at that particular bus stop is turning people away from riding public transit and encouraging them to drive, and park, in Hillcrest. Absent that proof, the memo explains, the city is at a higher risk of getting sued for misuse of parking meter funds.

Hillcrest Business Association President Ben Nicholls, left, gestures to trash littering a bus stop in Hillcrest, April 3, 2017.
Katie Schoolov
Hillcrest Business Association President Ben Nicholls, left, gestures to trash littering a bus stop in Hillcrest, April 3, 2017.

‘We can do better’

The problems with San Diego’s parking districts are not new. The city auditor completed a report on them in November 2014, finding there was little tracking or measurement of how successful their programs were. The City Council even reformed its parking district ordinance in June 2015, in part to give the districts more spending flexibility.

But the issue continues to pop up at public meetings. At a City Council committee meeting on Feb. 14, Howard Blackson, an urban planner who consults on development and street design, told council members the purse strings were still too tight.

“We should be able to have parking benefits districts that manage access to the places the parking is intended to serve, that manage wayfinding, signage, lighting, sidewalks, the pedestrians, transit support for these parking districts that we can’t do right now because our interpretation is very risk averse and says it’s just for paint and replacing meters,” Blackson said.

Blackson acknowledged later in an interview that there were legal limitations to how parking districts can spend their money, and that some districts are funding projects that reduce the demand for parking by promoting transportation choices beyond just the car. Two notable examples are FRED, a free downtown ride-hailing service, and the bicycle valet program at the I-15 transit plaza.

Still, Blackson said, there are other cities in California, governed by the same state laws as San Diego, that have found more creative, effective and legal ways to spend parking meter revenue. San Francisco changes the pricing of its parking meters based on demand. Redwood City has a similar system, integrated with wayfinding to direct motorists to free spaces.

“We can do better,” he said.

The City Attorney’s Office declined an interview request, but spokesman Gerry Braun said the advice in the 2010 and 2014 memos on parking district spending is still up to date and the office had no plans to review the issue.

Conflicting goals

The City Council policy governing parking districts empowers them to spend money on increasing the parking supply — leasing, purchasing or constructing parking lots and garages, or reorienting street parking to pack more cars into a small area. But Colin Parent, policy counsel for the nonprofit Circulate San Diego, said that goal is in direct conflict with the city’s Climate Action Plan, which aims to drastically decrease the share of San Diegans who drive to work.

“Parking induces driving,” Parent said. “The easier and less expensive it is to park, the more encouraged people are going to be to drive to places.”

An analysis commissioned by the city Planning Department last fall agreed, and suggested putting limits on the city’s parking supply to help achieve its goal of shifting transportation habits away from cars.

The Hillcrest Business Association has resisted sacrificing parking spaces in the neighborhood, and has butted heads with transit and bike activists over how street space should be divided among cars, buses and bicyclists. But when speaking about parking meter revenue, Nicholls agrees the city’s policy is too car-centric.

“San Diego as a region has doubled down on buses and bicycles,” Nicholls said. “So we should be able to deploy these monies for things like making it enjoyable to ride the bus.”