The Perils of Parking in DC

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At 7:30 this morning, far earlier than I normally leave my house, I was outside in flip-flops and my pajama shorts, moving my car.  Nor was I the only one.  My neighborhood is filled with students and people who work from home, and a whole lot of them seemed to be making U turns to park across the street.

Why was I doing this?  The District of Columbia is trying to make up plummeting tax revenues by getting the money out of motorists, especially parking.  It's using cameras to get 100% enforcement of the street cleaning parking rules, nearly doubling the cost of many parking tickets, and upping the bill on meters--it now costs $2 an hour to park in front of the Watergate, up from $1 last month.  This is a twofer:  raise more revenue from the meter, and from the parking ticket, because who carries around $4 in change on a regular basis?

Anecdotally, they've also upped the quota on parking enforcement, which used to be more of a sinecure; my mother reports that she now has three parking enforcement officers in her small neighborhood, constantly patrolling rather than (as they used to) sleeping in front of the Congressional cemetary.  They've started ticketing her for being an "out of state car" persistently parked in the neighborhood.  I got a ticket for having no front plate, something I didn't know was required.  The district has even started ticketing people for parking in their own driveways.  After their budget meeting, the city council announced plans to raise millions in new revenue by issuing an additional 200,000 tickets this year.

It will be interesting-as an observer, not as a resident--to see how this plays out.  Most businesses do not raise more money by raising prices when people are least solvent.  Is the government different?

I can park in the garage in the Watergate for $20 a day, or obtain a monthly spot in the Kennedy center for $150, which is rapidly starting to look competitive, even though I don't drive that often in the spring and summer months.  There's a nearly empty condo across the street from us that could presumably park my car for the cost of a couple of monthly tickets in my neighborhood, and I know I'm not the only one thinking this way--everyone I've talked to who is, for one reason or another, ticket-prone, is shopping monthly spots.

Now it's possible that the costs of spots will rise so that it's still cheaper to park on the street--but with the recession on, the garages presumably have overcapacity, so maybe not.  Moreover, I can alter my decision to drive to work, or I can sell my car, depriving the district of car registration fees as well as parking revenue.

The Laffer Curve is usually used to describe American income taxes, for which it isn't all that useful.  But it was actually first developed to analyze another sort of "stealth" taxation:  seignorage, the income that a government earns from printing money.  The interesting result was that the Weimar Republic was printing money too fast--it could have earned more by keeping the inflation rate lower.

I wonder if the District won't also find that it's gone too far.  For the first time since I started working at The Atlantic, when I drove to the office on Tuesday there were multiple available metered spots in front of the building.  When I left, again for the first time since I've started working there, not a single car had gotten a ticket for letting the meter run over.  Meanwhile, the garage in the building next door was full.  People will go a lot farther to avoid metered parking at $2 an hour than at $1 an hour, and tickets at $40 instead of $25, at any time, but particularly in a nasty recession.

On the other hand, perhaps the council just wants to help out the District's struggling parking businesses.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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