MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Chicago is hoping to generate some new revenue while also alleviating a nasty traffic problem. A new study ranks Chicago second worst in the nation in traffic congestion. Mayor Rahm Emanuel's solution: a $2 congestion fee on weekday parking in public lots and downtown garages. Other cities have had some success with congestion pricing.
But as NPR's David Schaper reports, some experts and local drivers are skeptical.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hello. You may pay with cash or credit card.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: For being computer-generated, the voice coming from this automated pay station in this downtown Chicago parking garage is pretty friendly. But the prices? Attorney Tom Higgins says, not so much. Prices start as low as $6 for 20 minutes - but quickly skyrocket.
TOM HIGGINS: Eighty-one to 100 minutes is $27, 101 minutes to 12 hours is $30. So unless you're staying for more than 12 hours, you're bleeding.
SCHAPER: And Higgins is not happy with Mayor Emanuel's plan to add a $2 congestion fee on weekday parking. The lawyer says he tries to take the train from his home in northwest Indiana whenever he can, but he can't always do so.
HIGGINS: Based on what I do and my need to be able to travel to court in various outlying districts, I need my car. So I guess it's just another cost for working in the city.
COLLEEN KARSTED: It would absolutely put me over the top.
SCHAPER: Colleen Karsted is a chef instructor at a downtown culinary school, and pays a reduced parking rate. But even that, she says, just went up.
KARSTED: And now, with an additional $2 tax, that puts me at 14 bucks a day. And it's just too much. I'll be on the L, for sure.
SCHAPER: The L being the city's elevated trains. And Karsted's response is exactly what city officials and urban planners are hoping for.
PETER SKOSEY: Congestion in downtown Chicago is bad.
SCHAPER: Peter Skosey is with the nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council. He says the city needs to keep the central business district, and not the number of cars, growing - with people coming downtown to work, shop and play.
SKOSEY: We have to start looking at how we increase the number of people that come in by trains and buses, on bikes and on foot.
SCHAPER: Skosey says the key to Mayor Emanuel's proposal is that it would dedicate revenue from the congestion fee to improving other transportation options - from mass transit stations and new bus routes to new bike lanes - so people forced out of their cars by higher prices would have more options. But not everyone is convinced this is the right approach.
DONALD SHOUP: I do not think a $2-a-day charge on off-street parking is the way to go.
SCHAPER: Donald Shoup is a professor of urban planning at UCLA. His book, "The High Cost of Free Parking," prompted many cities to rethink how they price downtown parking. He says a $2 increase may not be enough to get many commuters to leave their cars at home, especially if their employers cover all or part of the parking cost.
In addition, he says, raising prices in parking lots and garages might only increase the number of drivers circling around in search of street parking, adding to congestion.
SHOUP: The most important thing to do - for any city - is to get the price of curb parking right.
SCHAPER: That's the approach some other cities are taking. San Francisco, for example, is experimenting with parking meters that change prices block to block, and at different times of day, based on supply and demand. Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and other cities are also trying congestion pricing on street parking.
Shoup and other urban planners say Mayor Emanuel should consider incorporating meters and other options into his plan, which will be voted on by the city council next month.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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