U’s Parking Task Force Will Face Rough Realities

By and

When ASUU President Ben Lowe and others of the Associated Students of the University of Utah thought up the parking task force a few months ago, it seemed like a darn good idea.

Reasonable folks would get together, talk about the problem and figure it out. They would look at all the options and pick the best. What could be simpler?

The idea was so good that ASUU took it to the student body with a petition. Nearly 5,000 students signed the proposal in a collective expression of rage against the Parking and Transportation Services machine.

When Lowe and ASUU Vice President Mike Nelson presented the plan to U President Bernie Machen two weeks ago, he readily went along.

The task force now aims to have a full plan by the end of the school year and will begin to implement it by summer. Machen will enforce its decisions.

The intent of the parking task force is good. Lowe practically overflows with enthusiasm when he talks about it. “Nothing has ever happened in the past because of the attitude,” he says. “If we can get people behind it, we can start to make a difference.”

However, the task force faces a daunting project.

The economic realities of parking at the university make the problem difficult at best and impossible at worst. Regardless of how well it’s put together, the task force will have to make tough decisions.

That’s because the parking problem illustrates the most fundamental theory in microeconomics: You can’t have more of one thing without having less of another.

When they’re not drawing graphs, talking about Marx, or explaining why their predictions were wrong, economists spend their time thinking about this concept.

They say that resources are limited, and no matter how you spread the goods around, the sum total is always the same.

Alma Allred, director of parking services, explains how the U’s problem is no exception: “I’ve been in parking administration for 20 years,” he says, “and let me tell you, there is no such thing as free parking.”

Like every other resource, parking is limited. The benefits of any proposal always have to be balanced against the costs.

Allred says there are three specific elements that make good parking: cost, convenience and availability.

Any way you add it up, the sum of these three elements is always the same. Improving any one factor will make the other two worse.

Take a parking garage, for example. Such a structure would dramatically improve the availability and convenience of parking. Throw up a couple of those babies, advocates say, and students would never have to search for a spot.

This is true. Adding more spaces by building a parking garage would not only increase convenience and availability, but would also preserve green space.

The drawback is that the other element of the formula?the price?would take a huge hit. Parking passes would cost more than IOC members.

Allred says the bill for parking garages these days averages around $14,000 a space, and if the university financed the project at 6 percent interest, it would have to come up with $100 a month for each space. Assuming two students a day could occupy such a space, each would have to pay $50 a month for their parking. This amounts to nearly $200 a semester for a basic parking pass.

Ouch!

What about just building parking lots as far as the eye can see? Why not nix the lawns and go for broke on asphalt?

This solution would create gains in availability, but convenience would go down the toilet. There are few expendable green spaces in the center of campus. New parking lots would have to go out in the boonies. Imagine hiking down from the hospital every day.

Problems with safety make this concern doubly important. The last thing campus police want is a lot of people walking long distances at night.

Cost would also increase. Normal parking lots aren’t the same financial black hole as garages, but Allred says nearly 30 percent of parking services’ budget currently goes to repair and refurbishment of existing lots. Adding more lots raises the costs.

Building more lots would also make campus a lot less pleasant. Imagine the free speech area with asphalt and yellow stripes. Try putting wooden crosses or paper women into that.

How about encouraging the use of mass transit? That’s the perfect solution, isn’t it?

Increasing bus ridership seems like a great idea because it would reduce demand for parking. Unfortunately, it would also throw convenience and availability out the window.

People drive cars because it’s easy. Encouraging people to ride the bus admits that parking is so difficult it’s not even worth trying. Taking mass transit sacrifices time. It’s not win-win.

Clearly, all of these solutions are tough.

The parking task force will never come up with a painless answer.

No matter how hard the task force tries, the laws of economics, like the laws of physics, can’t be broken.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the task force can’t find a solution. Economists say that, although resources are limited, they can be distributed in different ways. People are sometimes willing to pay extra for what they want. A healthy economy will give it to them.

Perhaps, then, the task force (with the administrative power of President Machen behind it) will find a new distribution of resources that makes more people happy.

Although it can’t pull new spaces out of thin air, the task force may just find that people will fork out the dough or make other sacrifices for more parking.

The task force will have the unpleasant responsibility of deciding what’s important and what’s not.

Ultimately, if students and President Machen back the proposal, it can work out for the best.

“It may sound corny,” Lowe said, “But it’s true.”