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Chicago's New Parking Meters Go Missing. Tears Are Not Shed.

A man feeds one of Chicago's new meter boxes. At least 20 have been stolen in the past two months.

In the months after Chicago enacted its much-criticized parking meter deal, the city saw a 26 percent spike in the number of parking meter violations. Here, a man feeds one of the new meter boxes. Charles Rex Arbogast/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Somebody's been going all Cool Hand Luke on the parking meters of Chicago. At least 20 large sidewalk boxes — which take payments for several parking spots — have gone missing in the city in the past two months.

And drivers seem more curious about the method of the thefts than about the motivation behind them.

At 5 feet tall and 200 pounds, the machines present more of an engineering challenge than the old-style parking meters, which Paul Newman famously used a pair of pipe-cutters to decapitate.

Here's an excerpt from a report by Alex Keefe of Chicago Public Radio:

"They been grabbin’ these like hotcakes. I don’t know who, and where. I don’t see how they could get away with it, know what I mean?"

That's Ricky Adway, who works as a mover just a few feet away from where the meter was stolen. He knows this neighborhood well, so I ask him to lay out how he would have done the job.

"You gotta take all the screws out, or whatever’s got it mounted down. That’s gonna take at least 35 or 40 minutes. And pick it up and put it on something without anybody noticing you."

This tempest in a parking spot started in 2008, when Chicago privatized its 36,000 old-fashioned meters. In the deal, a company called Chicago Parking Meters, LLC paid $1.156 billion to operate the metered spaces.

The company began replacing the meters with pay boxes — and it also sharply raised rates.

If we do a little math with those numbers, each one of those spaces needs to yield $32,110 to earn their keep — not including installation and operating expenses. Now, I warn you, this is a journalist doing math. So the weak-of-stomach may want to avert their eyes.

And in downtown Chicago, drivers have to pony up $4.25 an hour to park on the street. To put that in context, those parking meters are making a little over half the Illinois state minimum wage of $8.25.

Discussing the new meters — and the higher rates — driver Megan Polk tells Keefe:

I think a lot of Chicagoans were really upset. And I think a lot of people have, I think, changed the way that they park in the city and try to navigate around using them because – I mean the rates are just ridiculous.

Keefe reports that another rate hike is set to take effect in January. So it may be true that in Chicago, to quote the famous line from Cool Hand Luke, "What we've got here is a failure to communicate."

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