Here's an idea

It's not news that the Atlanta region and the state of Georgia have struggled to find dollars for the transportation projects we need to get out of traffic - projects like city streetcars and light rail, Complete Streets projects to make biking and walking safe and easy, and commuter rail to connect the state. Well, here's an idea. Warning: if your blood pressure spikes at the mere mention of "parking," take a few deep breaths before reading on. 

Atlanta's private lot parking costs, in comparison with EVERY OTHER BIG CITY, are puny. At $95/month we're far below the national average of $165, and far, far below cities with good transit and walkability like Washington, D.C. ($270) (figures from Colliers International Annual Parking Survey).

That may sound like a good thing to you, but here's why it's not all fun and cheap parking: those low prices cost all of us in other ways.

Red Squares Indicate Land that is 100% Dedicated to Parking in Midtown Atlanta. Image from

  1. Cheap and plentiful private parking lots encourage more people to drive. That means more congestion, more time lost in traffic, longer commutes and less predictable arrival times (see "Snowpocalypse 2014"). When you can park all day for less than a round trip on MARTA, even people who believe in public transportation often make a decision based on the immediate cost in front of them.
  2. Dedicating valuable land in the densest parts of our city for private surface parking lots is an inefficient use of limited resources. Sure, we need some parking, but do we need all this parking? Surface lots in the heart of our city represent a low intensity use. Developing these parcels could make the city more vibrant, active, and safe.
  3. The low cost to operate private parking lots represents lost revenue that could help fill gaping holes in the city's finances, not to mention gaping potholes on our undermaintained city streets.  

Here's one approach that could reduce the blight of so many surface parking lots while giving us more funds to fix potholes, operate light rail, and create Complete Streets that give people transportation options. A surcharge, tax, or increased fee on private/commercial parking spaces.

Organizations including the Atlanta BeltLine, the City, and even Georgia Tech grad students have eyed this propect. Check out their ideas at the links below. 

  • Marshall Willis: Structuring an Equitable Parking Tax: Why the City of Atlanta Needs a Parking Tax and How it Should be Structured. "This paper provides a look into the costs, both direct and externalities, associated with parking and ways to equitably capture those costs through the use of a new parking tax structure in the business districts of Atlanta. I conclude with the potential concerns of implementing such a tax and make a final recommendation for the City of Atlanta."
  • Or as Thomas Wheatley put it in Creative Loafing, "Parking tax? Why not? Cash to build transit, bike lanes, and sidewalks won't fall from the sky. In the end, it's about paying for what you use and then using those funds to help improve transportation. The parking tax is smart fiscal policy that deserves serious study. If it's done right, it could change people's behaviors, improve the city's look and feel, and put Atlanta in control of its own destiny. Parking has real costs. We might not want to pay more but we're going to end up paying somehow."
  • The City's 2008 Connect Atlanta Plan included a section on parking fees. As then-deputy transportation director Heather Alhadeff put it, " [a parking surcharge] does start to get people to think of the [parking] space as a commodity or a value and starts to change those dynamics. Everyone views land related to parking as something that's free ... The public responded favorably to a fee that would help change land use, reduce congestion, and arm the city with significant funds." The plan's implementation chapter noted, "Currently, parking in Atlanta is among the cheapest of any urban area in its class."
  • As Junction Atlanta opined, "a parking tax is an intriguing policy option because it forces drivers to internalize the costs of auto-centric land use patterns and directs the revenue toward funding the alternative. A parking tax would be a significant step toward realizing the Beltline and the City of Atlanta’s other smart growth objectives."
  • The 2013 Atlanta BeltLine's Strategic Implementation Plan concluded, "The most promising source for implementation in Period 1 is a dedicated local sales tax, fee or surcharge, for example, a parking, transaction, or ownership fee. Parking fees have been considered in past planning efforts, including the Atlanta Regional Commission's Bridging the Gap 2010: Investigating Solutions for Transportation Funding Alternatives in the Atlanta Region. Parking fees are often used to fund transportation services due to the logical nexus between parking and the transportation network." 

BeltLine rendering from AECOM

How much money are we talking about? The plans above have identified multiple options - here are two:

  1. Transactional tax: a fee collected each time a parking space is used, but which would not affect free parking spaces. A $1 daily surcharge on 200,000 parking spaces in the city would give $75.9 million in year one, up to $181.1 million annually by 2030 (as estimated by the City of Atlanta).
  2. Ownership tax: a tax on parking space owners per space. A 10 percent tax on 50,000 spaces in the city that average $90 per month would generate $5.4 million in its first year, and grow to $13.4 million annually by 2030 (as estimated by the City of Atlanta).

What most citizens don't realize is how many funding opportunities the city misses out on every year because it doesn't have what's called the "local match" - turns out in government, as in business, sometimes you need to have money to make money. The local match is a percentage, often 20%, of the total project that federal programs often require local governments to cover. Having a local match fund would open up a world of possibilities for our city, not to mention fixing some broken sidewalks and adding inexpensive projects like protected bike lanes, right away.

Complete Street rendering of Morrow, Ga from the AARP blog.

This post is so long because this is a big idea. We think it's one worth seriously considering. It shouldn't be hard to find a civic-minded research firm to study and make a recommendation.

After that, the hard work begins: most likely, any of the ideas above would require state approval. After last week's debacle, maybe the state will decide to give local governments the ability to soothe our own traffic nightmares. 

Next week we'll talk about another idea - a bond issue.