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Privatized parking hearing draws paltry crowd

| Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010

Like many on Pittsburgh City Council, Marciana Rossi doesn't know what the best plan is to save the city's ailing pension system.

But Rossi of Sheraden doesn't think Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's proposal to lease the city's 12 Downtown garages and nearly 9,000 metered parking spaces for 50 years is the best solution.

The mayor's plan, which allows a private operator to increase rates that vary by neighborhood, "would put an incredible burden on us," Rossi said. "This isn't New York."

Rossi was one of about 10 residents who attended Tuesday night's public hearing at the West End Senior Center -- the first of six scheduled -- on options to increase the city's contributions into the pension system for 8,000 active and retired employees. The pension funds have 27 percent of their obligations; that figure must be at least 50 percent by the end of the year to avoid a state takeover of the system.

Ravenstahl last month received a $451.7 million bid from a private consortium to lease the garages and meters. Ravenstahl would put at least $220 million from the lease into the city's pension system.

Other options to bolster the pension funds include issuing a bond for the money needed, or implementing City Controller Michael Lamb's proposal, which involves prepaying into the system, having the Pittsburgh Parking Authority issue a bond to buy the city's parking spaces, and using the proceeds to replenish the pension funds. Doing nothing would allow the state to assume control of the system.

All four scenarios would likely include parking rate hikes, said City Finance Director Bill Urbanic.

"It's just a question of how much," he said.

Ravenstahl has set an Oct. 29 deadline for City Council to vote on the bid so the money can be in the bank by the end of the year.

Pete Wagner, a small-business owner and Democratic committeeman from Beechview, said the rate increases would hurt businesses.

"It's going to be a competitive situation with the suburbs," he said. Retail parking is free or minimal outside the city.

City Councilman Ricky Burgess, the only member of council to publicly support the mayor's plan, said he does so because of the infrastructure improvements the lease agreement requires be made.

Officials for Pittsburgh Parking Partners, the J.P. Morgan/LAZ Parking consortium, said yesterday they plan to go beyond what the lease calls for and invest $440 million to rebuild three garages and repair another, add 1,800 Downtown parking spaces, open a regional headquarters in the city and create 50 jobs. Officials said they hope to reap an 8 percent to 12 percent return on their investment.

Alan Lazowski, chairman and CEO of Connecticut-based LAZ Parking, said the consortium plans to allow people to use their cell phones, credit cards or cash to pay for parking, equip garages with plug-in chargers for electric vehicles and replace the city's meters with new pay-and-display multi-space machines within a 90-day transition period.

"We're building this for Pittsburgh, in Pittsburgh, for Pittsburghers," he said.

The new parking rates would take effect March 31. Pittsburgh Parking Partners would deploy a street assistance team to help users operate the new technology, Lazowski said.

The new rates won't hurt businesses; the new services and technology will draw people in, he added.

"The ease (of use) will make it work."

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