Chicago’s parking deal revisited

By Felix Salmon
November 24, 2009
blog entry yesterday, I've spent a large part of this afternoon doing a deep dive into the sale of the license to run Chicago's parking meters: many thank to the Parking Ticket Geek and Daniel Strauss of Gapers Block for prompting me to revisit the issue.

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After putting up a slightly hurried blog entry yesterday, I’ve spent a large part of this afternoon doing a deep dive into the sale of the license to run Chicago’s parking meters: many thank to the Parking Ticket Geek and Daniel Strauss of Gapers Block for prompting me to revisit the issue.

If you really want to get up to speed on all this, there are two main sources worth reading. The first is a long investigation by Ben Joravsky and Mick Dumke of the Chicago Reader, especially part two, which was published in May of this year. The second is a 46-page report by the Chicago Inspector General, David Hoffman, also looking at whether the city got a decent deal; it dates from June. Both of them are well-written and comprehensive examinations of the deal, which are invaluable when it comes to understanding it.

Daniel asks me a few questions, via email:

Where did the city go wrong? And why isn’t there a broader consensus on what should’ve been done? (Changing things is difficult in Chicago politics but hindsight is fairly easy to come to a consensus on.)

Boiled down, what the city of Chicago did was to rush a bill selling the parking-meter concession through the city legislature without allowing lawmakers to give it a detailed reading. The city claimed it got a good deal, basing that claim on a single valuation from its own advisor. But after the fact, a number of analysts, including the Inspector General, have concluded that actually the deal wasn’t very good at all.

The one claim in the IG’s report that I find the most compelling is that the term of the deal — 75 years — is far too long. Here’s their chart:

chicago.tiff

This is the IG’s best attempt to reverse-engineer the amount paid for the concession: in order to get to the final sum of $1.16 billion, they had to assume an 11% discount rate. (Which, yes, is pretty high.) When your discount rate is that high, there’s little point in selling off a 75-year concession: you can cut the life in half and still get 93% of the value.

It’s worth pointing out at this point that another critic of the deal, Scott Waguespack, uses a valuation methodology where the discount rate is 3% and the inflation rate is also 3% — in other words, the value of a real dollar in 75 years’ time is the same as the value of that dollar today. That’s just ludicrous.

But what isn’t ludicrous is that nobody has a clue what the parking-meter industry is going to look like in the 2080s: will there even be cars parking at meters then? If someone bought a franchise in 1934 in just about any industry — even if it was heavily regulated by the government — they’d have no ability to foresee what kind of revenues that franchise might be bringing in today. As far as the purchaser is concerned, the second half of the deal basically has option value: there’s a possibility that it might be hugely lucrative, but there’s also a possibility that it’ll beworth nothing. Looking at the price, it doesn’t seem that the buyers paid anything at all for the option, so it was silly of Chicago to just give it away.

But weirdly, the length of the deal is not one of the main points that the critics bring up. Instead, the point that they return to over and over again is that Chicago would make much more money, over time, if it kept all the parking-meter revenue for itself, rather than giving it to a private-sector contractor.

That’s true. But is it relevant? I’m a believer in what the IG report calls “the impossibility argument” — that even if Chicago did manage to raise meter rates on its own, pushback from constituents would surely force it to roll back those hikes sooner rather than later. As the Parking Geek himself says,

From every report I’ve read and every city hall insider I’ve spoken to, all 50 alderman, a full year after the deal was signed, are still receiving holy hell for the rate increases from their constituents.

The only way of baking in these price hikes was for the city government to tie its own hands — which is exactly what it did. And more broadly, it’s possible that the only way it could tie its hands in this manner was precisely by pushing the bill through in a rushed and bullying manner. (It’s not the first time that’s happened in Chicago, and it won’t be the last: it’s called politics.) Maybe doing the deal in this way was the only way a deal could be done at all.

But that still leaves the question of whether Chicago should have done this deal. I’ve already said that the tenor of the deal is too long: a 30-year concession would have made much more sense. But what is the value of the deal to the purchaser? Was Chicago ripped off? Let’s say I’m auctioning off a vintage Rolls Royce which I have no use for because I can’t drive and I think it’s ugly. Even if I sell it for $100, the cash will be worth more to me than the car. But I’d be stupid to do that, because there are people who would pay a lot more, and the market value of the car is many times greater.

So was Chicago stupid in this case? Did it leave money on the table in its negotiations to sell the parking-meter concession?

My feeling, after reading the IG report, is that Chicago got a good price for the concession, if not a very good price. There’s no doubt that the price would have been much higher had the auction taken place at the height of the credit bubble, when money was almost free, rather than at the height of the credit crunch, when persuading anybody to part with over a billion dollars for anything at all was quite an impressive achievement. What’s more, the critics of the deal generally ignore the tail risk involved: there were lots of things which might go wrong for any purchaser, and as a result the reasonable market price was lower than the revenue projections might suggest.

Indeed, after the parking meters were handed over to Chicago Parking Meters, lots of things did go wrong. And that brings me to the second part of Daniel’s question, where he asks about yesterday’s story, which came out of the Chicago News Cooperative, and which prompted my blog entry:

How does this reflect on the CNC? Many Chicagoans are curious/excited/nervous about the venture but it’s run by the same Tribune people that arguably ran it into the ground. Is this story prophetic of what the venture will be like in your opinion?

The simple answer to the last question is no: it would be ridiculous and invidious to judge an ambitious new news organization by its first story, and I wish the CNC all the best.

That said, after reading a great deal of material from this summer on the subject of the parking-meter deal, I’m even less impressed by the CNC story, whose conclusion was clearly foregone. The new news in the story is about the actual revenues that the private-sector parking meters have generated — and it turns out that those revenues were significantly lower than expected. Yet the CNC story largely skates over that fact, to paint a picture of a company “piling up the profits”, in the words of its headline. To the extent that the CNC story looks at the mechanics of the deal itself, it adds nothing to the Chicago Reader’s investigation, which of course it doesn’t mention.

Going forwards, I’m hopeful that the CNC will produce good work. But I stand by my original verdict that this particular story is flawed. I neither hope nor expect that someone in Chicago is going to write a long, contrarian article explaining why the deal was magnificently good after all. But it’s worth at least examining both sides of the argument.

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