A Bold Parking Proposal
I encourage you to read the two columns by J.J. Gasparotti in the Feb. 15 and Feb. 22 issues of the Indy. In the first piece, he explains a crucial budgetary problem in Laguna: local residents are subsidizing visitors between $20 million and $30 million every year. I have been part of an informal group meeting with Laguna Beach city officials to consider this problem and to look for a remedy. If you wonder about the basis of such an analysis, it is grounded in hard, detailed data that compares Laguna expenditures and revenues to those of comparable cities that do not deal with six million plus visitors per year.
Gasparotti shatters the myth that this massive invasion of visitors is a net positive for residents. He observes that using taxes paid by Laguna residents to make our town even more attractive to visitors is a fool’s game, at least for residents. Many of you might already suspect this, and the data confirm that hunch. The money that the city reaps from what visitors pay falls horribly short of what it costs the city to provide for them (especially for public safety, infrastructure, and maintenance). We often hear about the extra revenue that visitors bring to town, but we do not see the data about the extra costs they generate – extra costs that are about double the extra revenue.
In his Feb. 22 piece, Gasparotti posits a partial solution: paid parking structures. At one level, this is sensible. It is a user charge and it targets non-residents. User charges are an excellent strategy for trying to connect costs with those who benefit. The problem is that his proposal is far too modest. Building parking structures with a few hundred spaces is expensive. For example, user charges would never have covered the $42 million Village Entrance parking structure, which was overwhelmingly rejected by residents. Laguna will never build parking structures sufficient to accommodate even a fraction of our visitors. Indeed, there is good social science evidence that when you offer a modest benefit, you attract more people than the benefit can handle, making the problem worse.
But paid parking could be beneficial, if we were bold.
What if all public streets where parking is allowed (from North Laguna to South Laguna) within six blocks inland from Pacific Coast Highway were striped for pay parking? Payment would be required between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Local residents in those neighborhoods could purchase, at a very nominal fee, (or perhaps be issued for free) several hang tag permits that would allow them (or their guests) to park for free in these spots. Most visitors park in this zone, which is walking distance to the beach and commercial areas. And they would pay a timed fee similar to what they pay now in existing lots and metered spaces. This could double our limited number of pay parking spaces.
How does this improve the current situation? Most of our visitors are day-trippers. Most enjoy free parking on our residential streets and generate costs for the city while providing minimal or no revenue to the city. We are not preventing anyone from enjoying Laguna. It will not cover the huge subsidy that Laguna residents currently provide to visitors. But by renting visitors a space to park, we capture at least some of the revenue associated with these costs the visitors generate.
Of course, there are costs to set this system up. Pay kiosks (not parking meters) and paint. More parking enforcement officers will be needed. But these costs will quickly be recovered. There will be days when some/many of these parking places will be unused. And there will be grumbling from some residents who live just above the pay parking zone and, probably for the first time, get some day trippers parking on their streets.
This is not an ideal solution. But no one has come up with a better way to connect a significant revenue stream directly to our six million plus visitor-users of Laguna. Our community should do something. Or we can generously continue to subsidize visitors $20-30 million per year – funds that could be better used in many ways to provide for Laguna’s residents or to help with the coming Laguna budget crisis related to our pension obligations. I welcome you to find a better strategy.
James Danziger is a research professor of political science and has owned a home in Laguna Beach for more than 40 years.